At MMIWG hearings, translating stories of loss and heartache takes its toll

After years of dealing in the dry language of government and business, Suzie Napayok now has a very different job: relaying the harrowing stories of loss at the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

'When they cry, the emotions come through, and I have to keep myself together,' Inuk translator says

Suzie Napayok is a translator with the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

There are times when, as much as she tries, Suzie Napayok can't help herself. Her voice quivers, a tear rolls down her cheek.

After years of dealing in the dry language of government and business, Napayok now has a very different job: relaying the harrowing stories of loss at the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Napayok, fluent in English and Inuktitut, is part of a team of translators on hand during the hearings in Montreal. 

In a single day, she helped tell the complex, tragic story of an Inuk woman whose sister went missing in Montreal in October 1994. The woman, Alacie Nowrakudluk, was found in the St. Lawrence River two weeks later.

The family still doesn't know what happened.

She also translated the words of Rebecca Jones, a survivor of domestic abuse in Coral Harbour, Nunavut, now living in Ottawa, who spoke passionately about the need for more services in remote communities.

Later, she assisted a panel of Inuit women recounting stories of violence, alcoholism and abuse.

"When they cry, the emotions come through, and I have to keep myself together, and I have to sound like I'm doing this for a professional job," Napayok said in an interview during a break this week.

"It's hard to stay together, but you have to. You have to relay the message exactly as it's being expressed."

To translate, Napayok sits in a small, darkened booth at the back of the conference room inside Montreal's Hotel Bonaventure, where the inquiry is being held, quietly speaking into a microphone.

Suzie Napayok inside the booth where she translates from Inuktitut to English at the inquiry in Montreal. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Anyone requiring translation can hear her wispy voice — which breaks at times after so much talking — through the headsets provided.

'They don't cry over nothing'

Napayok was born to a white father, who worked for the Hudson's Bay Company ("of all things," she says), who was adopted by an Inuit family.

Her mother was a member of the Curley Clan, an influential family in Canada's North. Her uncle, Tagak Curley, is considered one of the founders of Nunavut.

Like many Inuit people, she was forced to attend a residential school. But she emerged, she said, with a strong understanding of both English and Inuktitut.

For years, she worked as a translator in Nunavut and Yellowknife, where she still lives. More recently, she travelled to Winnipeg and Rankin Inlet for the inquiry.

Testimony from survivors or families can often run longer than two hours. Interpreting it, she said, can be draining.

Alacie Nowrakudluk died in 1994 in Montreal. Family members say they still don't know what happened. (Submitted)

The hearings in Montreal ended on Friday, after testimony from about 70 people in both public and private over the past week. The inquiry recently asked for a two-year extension, which would extend its mandate to Dec. 31, 2020.

Next week, the inquiry makes its way to Churchill, Man. 

Napayok isn't sure when she will be working again — but she sees it as a kind of duty.

"I see it as something I need to do, to help my people. It's my job to make sure their voices are heard properly. Inuit are really quite powerful. They don't cry over nothing," Napayok said.

Richness in language

Some ideas are more difficult to translate than others.

In Inuktitut, for instance, there are specific words to describe an older sister and a younger sister, or an aunt on a mother or father's side of the family.

Often times, people testifying would begin in English or French and then, in the most emotional moments, revert to their mother tongue.

"The really deep emotion is best articulated in a person's mother tongue. Sometimes the technical stuff is easier in English, because that's the interactions they had with police, or the coroner," said Qajaq Robinson, one of the inquiry commissioners, who is also fluent in both Inuktitut and English.

Marion Buller, the inquiry's chief commissioner, left, and Qajaq Robinson address the media in Montreal. Robinson says allowing people to speak in their own language is 'really, really key.' (Charles Contant/CBC)

Robinson said allowing witnesses to speak in their own language has been crucial to understanding the depth of a person's story.

"The richness in their own language is really, really key."

There is, Napayok noted, a term in Inuktitut for the word inquiry.

It translates directly as "seeking where the truth ends and the non-truth begins. There's a fine line," she said.

"The people in search of that line are called 'the fine-line seekers."

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