Shauna Pitawanakwat gets award from the Attorney General

Shauna Pitawanakwat stands at the MMIWG inquiry’s report release event, next to a billboard featuring Sharon Johnson, whose sister Sandra was murdered in Thunder Bay. Ms. Pitawanakwat said many families affected by MMIWG are among the most courageous and kindest of people and are her heroes.

SIOUX LOOKOUT – Wiikwemkoong band member Shauna Pitawanakwat, who now lives in Sioux Lookout, is one of nine individuals whom the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General (MAG) recently recognized with awards for their work in victim services, with Ms. Pitawanakwat getting honours for her work with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), their male counterparts and their families.

“I’m overwhelmed in a good way. This distinction is, I think, a reflection of the families and the people that I work with, and my belief in the support that they needed,” Ms. Pitawanakwat told The Expositor, saying she shared this honour with both the families she serves and her former colleague who died last year.

“I don’t accept it as something that was ‘just me.’ It was definitely a spiritual community effort and I share that with everyone,” she said. “I’d also like to acknowledge the tremendous support of the Violence Action Awareness Committee in Sioux Lookout.”

Ontario released the list of the 2020-2021 Victim Services Awards of Distinction recipients on April 14, celebrating nine individuals and six organizations for their work to support victims. Ms. Pitawanakwat’s nomination came from Darlene Angeconeb of Equay-Wuk Women’s Group in her community. She said she was honoured to get a nomination from a partner organization, especially another First Nation group.

Ms. Pitawanakwat works in the family information liaison unit through MAG, after the ministry asked her to help start up its Sioux Lookout office for that unit in 2018. Her role addresses gaps in rural and remote communities, especially prevalent in the Northwestern Ontario area she serves.

This overlaps with a higher incident rate of cases of MMIWG in that part of the province, too.

The family information liaison unit helps families access information they need regarding their cases and the police investigation, coroner’s reports, navigation through course proceedings and offering culturally appropriate family support during traumatic times.

The unit offers services through Indigenous centres as much as possible, as opposed to government buildings, hoping to make the process as easy for families as possible. The Sioux Lookout office covers a massive area including all 33 Nishnawbe Aski Nation communities and those individuals in Treaty 3 and Treaty 5 territory.

A press release from MAG highlighted the nine individual award winners and celebrated Ms. Pitawanakwat’s contributions.

“Shauna’s persistence and attention to detail resulted in the reopening of an historic case involving the death of an Indigenous woman in Sioux Lookout. She has made a profound difference in the lives of people she has worked with and supported,” stated Attorney General Doug Downey.

Ms. Pitawanakwat, who calls herself a lifelong advocate for women and children, said this position has been rewarding and fulfilling.

“(The families) have taught me so much on a personal level and professionally. I think that sometimes you get a calling, and I just follow that,” she said.

Her family lived in Lansing, Michigan before moving home to Wiikwemkoong when she was 10. Ms. Pitawanakwat went to Sault College to study drug and alcohol counselling and then she completed a diploma through Nipissing University as a teacher’s assistant.

Before this work with the family information liaison unit, she worked with the Sioux Lookout Health Authority as a mental health counsellor. She previously worked in MAG’s Victim/Witness Assistance Program in Gore Bay for a dozen years.

This work is especially important, she said, given Indigenous and other racialized peoples’ experiences with the justice system and a fundamental breakdown in trust of police forces and governments.

“It’s a work of service. And I believe that’s my calling, is works of service for our people and especially for our Indigenous women. We have been deprived of so much service and a lack of resources for our people, and so this program was set up to help fill the gap and help families who have lost missing or murdered women and other people,” she said.

The Sioux Lookout family information liaison unit opened in 2017. One of Ms. Pitawanakwat’s contributions since that time was attending hearings of the National Inquiry into MMIWG to support families as they testified about the impact of that epidemic on their lives. She later offered strength to families when the inquiry’s final report came out.