The collective mood at the unveiling of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls was pensive, solemn and gentle, but above all, buoyed by a certain brightness of spirit. Plenty of families are still waiting warily to see what exactly comes of it, but at the Canadian Museum of History, where the five-member commission was announced Wednesday morning, many people used the same word in taking the emotional measure of the room: hopeful.
Claudette Commanda, an Algonquin elder who offered the opening prayer, began things by chiding the audience for falling into reverent silence simply because they heard the word “elder.” She spoke of the “momentous occasion” to finally confront this “national tragedy and disgrace,” but her overall tone and message was one of gratitude and quiet joy. “It’s a beautiful day and we must rejoice in life,” Commanda said.
So against that prevailing mood, it was particularly arresting when Jody Wilson-Raybould was, for just a moment, overcome by her own emotions. She spoke slowly and thoughtfully, pausing to acknowledge the totem poles soaring above and six Pacific Coast big houses standing sentry behind her in the museum’s Grand Hall. “I am incredibly proud to be here, certainly as the minister of justice and the attorney general of Canada, but proud to be here also as a Kwakwaka’wakw woman from the west coast of British Columbia,” she said.
It was when she spoke of the need to identify the root causes of the vastly disproportionate violence toward indigenous women and girls that the justice minister came undone a little. There was a long, quiet pause as she collected herself. “We know that the inquiry cannot undo the injustices that Indigenous peoples have suffered over decades,” she said, looking directly at the audience of mourning families and advocates in front of her. “But we can review what’s happened in the past, reflect on our present circumstances and chart a path moving forward.”
She ended her remarks where she started, gesturing at the formidable big houses behind her—one of them from her home territory—which for her represent the resilience and strength of the people who lived within them. “It is that strength, the culture, the traditions and our languages that are going to assist in healing, that are going to chart the path to a future where Indigenous peoples can finally see their face in the mirror of our constitution,” she said.
In the audience, Bernie Williams (a member of the Haida nation, her traditional name is Gulkittjaad) and a friend had their drums with them. They debated for some time whether the drums belonged there, before deciding they did. Williams works in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where her mother and two of her sisters were killed. Periodically when one of the speakers said something that grabbed her—such as when Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett mentioned that each province and territory had signed on, so the commission could work without obstacles—Williams pounded on her drum three times. “It’s a heartbeat. We were always taught that the drum is like the heartbeat of Mother Earth,” she said afterward, thumping one hand on her chest. “We are very, very happy that this is happening for us. And it’s been a long time, but the sad thing about it is it’s still going on—nothing has changed.”
On the other side of the audience, Charlotte and Abigail Carleton, Inuit throat singers who live in Ottawa, were sitting next to each other, quietly figuring out what they were going to perform. Just before they were called up, Charlotte, 24, sensing the mood in the room, thought of the right song. “Indigenous people are really resilient and strong. We go through much and come out better,” she said from the stage, alongside her 21-year-old sister. “This song we believe is appropriate—it’s called The River. And just like water, we push through things. We’re very agile and we adapt to things.”
Another set of sisters, Sharon and Gloria Johnson, were also sitting side-by-side nearby. Their youngest sister, Sandra Kaye Johnson, was both with them and absent. She smiled out from the front of their purple T-shirts as a teenager, and from the back, as a toddler clutching her favourite doll, Nicole. Her photo was inscribed with Sept. 26, 1973—her birthdate—and Feb. 13, 1992, the cold, snowy day when she was raped, murdered and left in Thunder Bay’s McIntyre River. “I always feel like she’s with me, like she’s walking with me in spirit,” said Sharon. “I feel like that every day, even if I’m not wearing this T-shirt.”
Sandra was happy and outgoing: a powwow dancer from the time she could walk and a lover of heavy metal music who was learning to play drums for her brother’s band. Sharon and Gloria have spent the years since her death attending vigils and planning memorial walks. More than anything, they just wanted people to take notice that this was happening—to them and other families like theirs. It often felt futile, but in the last few years, they started to hear more talk about missing and murdered women like Sandra. Their fight no longer feels pointless. “Being here today for me was important because it feels good to know that our work wasn’t all for nothing,” Sharon said. “Even if we never find out what happened to our little sister.”