by Maureen Strickland
BIRCH ISLAND—It has been one week since Nina Toulouse ended a memorial walk for her mother, Linda Mae Toulouse, at her mother’s home community of Whitefish River First Nation.
“We walk for those who couldn’t, for family members, for elders, for other families, for girls and for two-spirited women and we speak for those who don’t have a voice,” said Ms. Toulouse.
From June 1 to June 3, Ms. Toulouse with her cousin Nala Toulouse and countless supporters along the way, walked and brought her mother’s spirit home on a healing journey from Sudbury to Birch Island.
Ms. Toulouse chose these dates specifically because on June 3, 2019 the final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released.
Linda Mae Toulouse, 56, died in March 2020 at the Ledo Hotel on Elgin Street in Sudbury. Linda Mae Toulouse was a mother, stepmother, grandmother, aunt and friend.
As reported in The Sudbury Star “the Greater Sudbury Police Service said there was no foul play but Nina and her family were not convinced.”
“My mother’s death was not the first murdered and missing indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) death my family has gone through,” said Ms. Toulouse. “When there are no answers, it is a different kind of pain.”
Ms. Toulouse wanted the walk to also raise awareness of MMIWG, human trafficking and domestic violence and to educate the public that these things are still happening across Canada and the public needs to pay attention.
Ms. Toulouse met with The Expositor on Friday June 10 at Season’s Restaurant in M’Chigeeng during her lunch break. Ms. Toulouse is an Indigenous Youth Prevention/Intervention Program worker with the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising (UCCMM).
Ms. Toulouse emanates a quiet strength as she talks about the walk, her mother and murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada.
“Walking is a process, you do it step by step, just like a healing journey,” said Ms. Toulouse.
The walk started with a dream this past winter, says Ms. Toulouse. Her mother came to her in a dream, Linda Mae was in Birch Island and she needed help. Around the same time, Nina’s cousin Nala had a similar dream but Linda Mae was in Sudbury. As Nina pondered these messages from her mother she knew she needed to bring her mother’s spirit home.
Nina talked to Nala and the two cousins worked together to make this dream and the walk a reality.
At the same time, Nina was working on awareness-raising of human trafficking, domestic violence, healthy relationships and consent through her work with young people. UCCMM gave Nina the creative freedom to explore this through the walk as part of her work.
On June 1 the walk began with a sunrise ceremony in Sudbury. They walked through areas of downtown Sudbury that her mother had frequented to honour her mother’s struggles as part of taking her spirit home.
There were five core walkers to start, with other walkers leaving and joining over the next three days.
Nina and Nala did the entire walk. They were flanked by their protectors, Zack Corbiere in front and Sonny Maguiresmith behind, both driving trucks the whole way.
Just two kilometres short of the first night’s rest stop at Centennial Park before Regional Road 55 meets Highway 17, Ms. Toulouse wondered, “what did I get myself into?”
She was sore all over but then she heard ‘Remember Me’ by Fawn Wood drifting out of Mr. Maguiresmith’s truck. The song reminds her of her mother. “My body flushed with goosebumps all over, the pain went away and did not return,”said Ms. Toulouse.
Other signs along the road kept her going. She kept finding dimes. Dimes are said to be symbols of being on the right path or signs of love from someone who has died and they are sending encouragement and peace.
Mr. Maguiresmith, unknown to him, was playing the soundtrack to Linda Mae’s life on the radio in his truck. All of this brought comfort says Ms. Toulouse.
In Espanola, the whole high school came out to cheer them on and the Ontario Provincial Police provided an escort through town, said Ms. Toulouse.
Ms. Toulouse said her mother was a hard worker. Nina attributes her own work ethic to Linda Mae. “She gave me the teaching to keep moving forward,” said Ms. Toulouse.
Step by step, and as the tears flowed during the walk, I felt lighter, said Ms. Toulouse.
On the final afternoon, June 3, as they approached the end of the walk at the memorial site by the community centre in Whitefish River First Nation, Nina was walking with Nala and holding the banner the walkers had carried for 100 kilometers.
“I broke down crying,”said Nina, “ it hit me, what we had accomplished and how we are role models for resilience.”
Nina and Nala hugged, soon to be joined by a community embrace as Linda Mae’s spirit was finally brought home.
Ms. Toulouse could not have done the walk without the support of many others. She asked The Expositor to acknowledge all the helpers, the protectors, the grandmothers and youth who walked along side them, the committee We Dance for Life, Noojmowin Teg, Whitefish River First Nation and the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising.
“Say Chi-miigwech to all those who supported us through the hard times of our mother’s death,” said Ms. Toulouse.
People have come up to Ms. Toulouse since the walk asking how can they help.
Ms. Toulouse says, “listen to the stories, listen with compassion and an open heart, donate to local domestic violence efforts, get educated on human trafficking, open up conversations on racism with your children.
“Understand how everyone is healing, try to understand intergenerational trauma without judgement and know the history and the context – residential school, the child welfare system, MMIWG,” she added. “We are at a pivotal moment for future generations. We are all healing and learning.”
On Saturday after the walk, Ms. Toulouse did a bit of dancing at the AOK powwow. “I feel like I am brand new. It is still a process but I feel like I shed one skin and have a new skin.” said Ms. Toulouse.
Ms. Toulouse is starting the Anishinaabemowin program at Algoma University in Sault Ste Marie this September.
She says the wound of her mother’s death has healed but she has a scar that will always be there.
But this healing journey has changed Ms. Toulouse. “Before, I was shy and scared to speak the truth. Now I have the strength to speak out more.”
Ms Toulouse has four children, two boys and two girls, and she is committed to being a role model and breaking unhealthy intergenerational cycles in her own family.
Her 11-year-old’s teacher heard a story about Ms. Toulouse embarking on this walk and said, “You’re very lucky to have a mother like you have.”
And the 11-year-old’s reply, “Yes, I love my Mom.”