Manitoba families of murdered and missing indigenous women let their voices be heard loud and clear on Monday, ahead of a national MMIW inquiry.
"When you hear from a mother that she has three girls that she has raised to believe they have a target on their backs, it is extraordinarily emotional for everyone in the room," said Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, who met with reporters after the private meetings.
"It's pretty raw here."
Bennett met with family members as part of her cross-Canada pre-inquiry consultations, which kicked off in Thunder Bay in early January. She's asking families of missing and murdered indigenous women what the inquiry should look like and who should be involved.
Winnipeg is the 11th stop on the pre-inquiry tour, but in many ways, it is Ground Zero in the national awareness of missing and murdered indigenous women, Bennett said.
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It is appropriate to be meeting on Treaty 1 territory because in many ways "this is Ground Zero in terms of the awareness that all Canadians now have because of the death of Tina Fontaine and the near-death of Rinelle Harper," Bennett said.
"I think a lot of Canadians only first came to understand this immense tragedy … and to understand the families that have been fighting for their missing and murdered loved ones for a very long time [after those crimes]."
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While she has heard many stories in her cross-country meetings, Bennett said she experienced and heard some different things in Winnipeg.
"There seems to be tremendous anger and cynicism. People here are concerned about the police; they're concerned about government; and frankly, they were quite skeptical as to whether an inquiry will help at all," she said.
'We shouldn't be ignored'
Thirteen-year-old Dysin Spence said it is important for him that the stories of indigenous people be central to the inquiry and that concerns about law enforcement be taken seriously. His friend, Chloe Cameron, was murdered two years ago on Peguis First Nation.
"We need more respect for aboriginal people, more respect from the police and the government," Spence said. "We shouldn't be ignored."
Amy Heinrichs, Spence's mom, said she wants Bennett to remember men need to be included in the inquiry, too. Her brother Steven was murdered in Saskatchewan in 2002.
"When he died, a part of me went with him, and not knowing what happened to him, sometimes I get scared I may not ever find who I used to be," Heinrichs said, adding she is optimistic the inquiry will help provide answers to families.
Bennett said she has heard a lot of "tough messages" like those from Spence and Heinrichs that show government workers conducting the inquiry need to work to earn the confidence of those affected.
"It is those voices that really keep us in pursuit of the design of an inquiry that will allow people to feel that they've been heard — but also put into place the concrete measures that will stop this terrible tragedy."
Concern about reoffenders strong in Winnipeg
Bennett said she also heard in Winnipeg, more than anywhere else, concern about reoffenders being allowed back into communities without receiving proper treatment for their crimes against women and girls. It left them feeling unsafe and unprotected by the justice system.
She also heard many messages from people who have felt abandoned by the government, left to mourn and search alone. Bennett cited the examples of Drag the Red volunteers who have searched Winnipeg's waterways for clues to missing indigenous women and girls for nearly two years.
And then there are the families of Jennifer Catcheway and Tanya Nepinak, who have searched landfills for signs of their daughters.
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The media was also criticized by some of the people she spoke to, who said news reports negatively characterize indigenous women. Those examples show just how linked everyone is in addressing the MMIW issue, Bennett said.
Families in Winnipeg also underscored the need for young people to be involved in the design of the inquiry and called for federal supports and services for children left orphaned.
There needs to be "profound reform" in the child welfare system, to keep families together "and wrap the services around them" rather than tear them apart, Bennett said.
Linda Migwans, who lost an aunt in the 1960s, will speak at the gathering and is focusing on the healing it could bring.
Her aunt's death affected four generations of her family — her grandmother, mother, herself and her own daughter. Migwans said it's about time the families of murdered and missing indigenous women were heard.
"What I'm hoping today is to find healing, to find a way that we can help each other and put it out to the public that we can grow together and help each other in our healing journey," she said.
Steve Davis attended to support his partner, whose daughter was murdered in Moose Factory Cree Nation in Ontario. The killer was sentenced but Davis said the sentence was too lenient, and he hoped being involved with the pre-inquiry would help his partner cope with the loss.
"It lets her vent, lets her get out her views, what she thinks should be done. I think it's good for everybody because there's a lot of voices that need to be heard about this," he said.
The federal government has committed to spending $40 million over two years on the examination of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada.
So far no one, including Bennett, has mentioned what the scope of the inquiry will be. She said on Monday, however, that she hopes to get the inquiry launched before the summer begins.
Summaries of the meetings and information on upcoming ones will be posted to the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada's website as information is made available.