Commemoration of a sister’s murder raises awareness of issues of concern to all

Mag Cywink and brother Alex Cywink hold a photo of their sister Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink who was murdered in 1994.

BIRCH ISLAND—Mag and Alex Cywink are the sister and brother of Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink, who was brutally murdered when she was 31-years-old. Since Sonya’s body was found in the Southwold Earthworks, a “park-like space” 65 miles west of London, Ontario on August 30, 1994, Mag, Alex and their family have never lost hope that their sister’s killer will be identified one day, perhaps apprehended and brought to justice.

“Ours was a big, social, extended family in Whitefish River (First Nation),” says Mag, “there were 13 children. Sonya was the twelfth, born August 19, 1963, and she was a beautiful child.” The kids went to school in Espanola, “there was an emphasis by our parents on education. They wanted us to make life more than just Birch Island.” But Sonya, traumatized in her early teens, dropped out, and at age 18 moved to Toronto where “she struggled with equilibrium,” adds her sister, “and led a roller coaster life. The family tried to help, but Sonya’s life took a bad turn—she became an addict.”

Sonya’s strong spirit rose to the challenge and she went into a London recovery program for two years, until 1992. These were years of hope that rehabilitation would turn things around for Sonya, but, as often happens, there was a relapse, “and she became what is called a sex trade worker, to support her addiction,” recounts Mag. “Then she was reported missing on August 26, 1994.”

The heartbreak is evident as brother and sister speak of Sonya, but they have channelled their loss into working for the larger cause of the disproportionate number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada whose cases have not been solved.

In 2014, an RCMP report established the number of missing aboriginal women at 164 and homicide victims at 1,017, totalling 1,181. The report states that within “the broader reality of violence affecting aboriginal women in Canada…the rate of victimization among aboriginal females was close to three times higher than that of non-aboriginal females.”

A 2004 Amnesty International report, ‘Stolen Sisters,’ was updated in 2009 with ‘No More Stolen Sisters,’ highlighting “the role of racism and misogyny in perpetuating violence against indigenous women; the sharp disparities in the fulfilment of indigenous women’s economic, social, political and cultural rights; the continued disruption of indigenous societies caused by the historic and ongoing mass removal of children from indigenous families and communities; the disproportionately high number of indigenous women in Canadian prisons, many of whom are themselves the victims of violence and abuse; and inadequate police response to violence against indigenous women as illustrated by the handling of missing persons cases.”

In its February, 2014 submission to the Parliamentary Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women (IWFA), Amnesty noted: “The level of international concern is demonstrated by the fact that in 2013, three international human rights mechanisms conducted visits to Canada either wholly or in part to investigate violence against indigenous women and girls. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights mission was held in August, followed by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in September, and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, in October.”

The Cywinks want to tie their sister Sonya’s murder “into this epidemic of missing and murdered aboriginal women. We want people to recognize that this is a large, buried issue.” They have planned a solidarity walk, vigil and feast to honour their sister, and their posters welcome everyone to attend; another gathering will take place simultaneously in London.

“Even if this doesn’t solve Sonya’s murder, maybe it will lead to raised consciousness and help others who are in violent and abusive situations,” say Mag and Alex. “Prevention of violence is paramount, we want to let young children know this is happening and that it could happen to them. We’re responsible for that education, no one else.”

The gathering in honour of Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink and First Nations murdered and missing women will be held this Saturday, August 23 at the Whitefish River First Nation Community Centre. The Sacred Fire will be held from 3 pm to midnight with a peaceful solidarity Walk at 5:15 pm, a candlelight vigil at 7 pm with feast to follow.