BIRCH ISLAND—After a few days spent together in ceremony and learning, families of missing and murdered indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people gathered one final time, this time with members of the public by their side, at what was termed a ‘pre-inquiry community circle,’ held at the Whitefish River Community Centre last Thursday night.
The meeting was designed to give the families of missing and murdered women and girls and the community at large a glimpse into what the inquiry might be like, what to expect and not to expect, and how to care for one another while the inquiry is happening.
Before the meeting began a pipe ceremony was held. As the smoke unfurled from the pipes the prayers of the people were heard, the intent of the ceremony to lighten the loads of the families so they might walk their path a little lighter, elder Roberta Oshkawbewisens explained.
Deputy Grand Chief of the Anishinabek Nation, Glen Hare, addressed the group first, saying it was over two years ago that the Chiefs of Ontario met with families in Thunder Bay and told the government that something needed to be done, “and we waited, and waited, and waited,” he said.
“The stories I heard were unbelievable,” the deputy grand chief added, sharing one story that happened while he was chief of the M’Chigeeng First Nation. A grandmother lost her daughter to an act of domestic violence, he said. “She was advised to have the casket closed, that’s how horrific it was. She said ‘no, I want everyone to see what he did to my baby’.”
Deputy grand Chief Hare told the group about the Who is She campaign, launched by the Union of Ontario Indians to share stories of the missing and murdered and raise funds for the families. To date, he said, $64,000 will be used to hold another gathering for the families in the near future, sponsoring the families to get there.
He also urged First Nations communities to embrace the two-spirited and welcome them to be a part of the community. “We need to take a lead on that,” he added.
Dr. Janet Smylie spoke next. The soft spoken woman talked about the need to get to a place where the problem of violence and abuse is ended, but in the meantime dealing with the accumulated hurt, grief and loss.
Dr. Smylie listed some of the symptoms of trauma: recurrent nightmares, flashing images and complete shutdown.
“If we don’t have the tools, these things can sneak up on us; the good news is that there’s lots of community resources, through ceremonies and medical staff,” Dr. Smylie said, noting the importance of self care.
“As families and communities, we need to be more attentive—we need to pull through this and come out stronger,” Dr. Smylie said.
Christie Belcourt, Espanola Mètis artist and creator of the Walking with Our Sisters project, was also in attendance for the circle.
She was pleased to announce that Walking with Our Sisters will be in Sheguiandah next summer, and explained how the idea, posted on Facebook, suddenly saw her inundated with vamps (the tops of moccasins) from across the country and even the United States, each representing a missing or murdered indigenous woman, girl or two-spirited person.
When you attend an installment of Walking with Our Sisters, you will find a red carpet laid out throughout the room with the vamps placed alongside. When you enter the room you are asked to remove your shoes, walk and reflect.
“Girls,” Ms. Belcourt addressed the young women in the crowd, “you are the center of our world and we love you.” The artist encouraged the girls to volunteer with the project when it comes to Manitoulin next year and become part of the ceremony.
“The inquiry is political,” Ms. Belcourt said. “It was pushed for by families for 30 to 40 years. Some people feel it won’t amount to anything because the government is in charge, but some feel a lot of hope for the outcome, and I think we need to hold on to that hope.”
“We have to have the bravery and courage to see what colonization and land disposition has done—violence, toward us and within our communities,” she continued. “The antidote for violence is love and compassion, and we need to extend that to each other, even if we’re tired or cranky. The inquiry will be hard on families.”
Dr. Kim Stanton, a lawyer at the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), spoke on what to expect from the inquiry.
She explained that there is no information yet on how the inquiry’s five commissioners will interpret their mandate or how it will be executed, such as closed door, regional or based on an expert panel.
“There were 700 recommendations (in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings) and almost no implementation,” Dr. Stanton said.
“Good inquiries can, in the process, build public engagement, teach the public what is happening, our role, and acknowledge what has been done,” she added. “It’s important that it establish a history so no one can deny that history—the historical record is set.”
Dr. Stanton said an inquiry has to be conducted in a way that people are being heard. “It should not be driven by lawyers, like myself,” she continued.
Dr. Stanton said an inquiry needs the following attributes: commissioners with vision, courage and compassion, integrity, fair mindedness and a commitment to openness and transparency; a process that lends strength to its work, engages the broader community and creates knowledge and understanding through its very operations; has a clear media strategy; and creates social accountability.
“It’s up to all of us to remind them of that on a regular basis,” she said.
“There’s no way this inquiry can investigate every case and we need to adjust our expectations,” Dr. Stanton said. “We have to keep in mind that we can’t expect everything we want from this inquiry. We need to hold them responsible, but take a longer view.”
Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee said he was so glad to hear of the community circle, of families supporting each other and helping to lighten one another’s burden.
“We’re not leading the charge—we’re here to support and help,” the chief added. “My expectations of the inquiry are kind of low. What’s going to be important is the support the families give each other.”
Chief Madahbee said he’s shocked when he watches American TV as the election looms. “I don’t know how they put up with a man (Donald Trump) that talks so disrespectfully of a woman—we have to watch that in our community as well.”
Mag Cywink, a Whitefish River First Nation band member, who spearheaded the community circle, is the sister of the late Sonya Nadine Mae, who was murdered in 1995, and a strong advocate of the families of the missing and murdered.
“My biggest concern is what came from the pre-inquiry meetings is that they wanted all national aboriginal organizations (such as the Union of Ontario Indians) to step back and let families lead,” Ms. Cywink addressed the chiefs. “With the Who Is She campaign, families didn’t even know about it.”
Deputy Grand Chief Hare admitted that the campaign was also dropped on the leadership, who didn’t know about until right before its launch.
“This is your initiative,” he added.