'My mom matters': Woman seeks answers to 1977 suspicious death through MMIWG inquiry

Barbara Bernard came to the final day of the two-day Moncton, N.B., stop of the MMIWG inquiry not just to tell her own story but to plead for information on the suspicious still unsolved death of her mother, May Paul Francis, 40 years ago.

National inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls also heard from youth panel in Moncton

Barbara Bernard fought back tears as she shared her mother's story at the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls hearing in Moncton, N.B., on Wednesday. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

Barbara Bernard, 57, was just 16 years old when her mother, Mary Francis Paul, went missing from Scotchfort, P.E.I.

Days later, Paul's body was found on the Charlottetown waterfront.

Bernard was told Paul, who struggled with alcohol, had fallen and broken her neck.

It was 12 years later when Bernard discovered the truth — her mother's body was found stuffed inside a metal drum.

"I cried that whole week," Bernard told the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls Wednesday morning during a hearing in Moncton, N.B. "I couldn't believe [police] wouldn't have done something. ​

"It felt like they didn't think my mom's life was worth anything, and that hurt, and that's what made me decide to come here and tell my story for my mom. My mom matters. My mom was a human being. And I just need to know [what happened]."

MMIWG inquiry commissioner Michèle Audette asked panel members for their recommendations to create positive change during Wednesday's hearing in Moncton. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

Wednesday marked the final day of hearings at Four Points by Sheraton Moncton — the MMIWG's only stop in New Brunswick as the panel makes its way from coast to coast.

The inquiry's final report is due in November, but the commission is seeking a two-year extension to its mandate so it can visit more communities across the country, said commissioner Michèle Audette.

The next scheduled community hearings include Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Feb. 20-22, followed by Montreal March 12-16 and then Vancouver April 4-8.

The inquiry heard from about 38 survivors and family members during its two days in Moncton through a variety of formats — public and private hearings, sharing circle testimonies and artistic expression panels.

Inquiry reopens some cases

Bernard's granddaughter Kindra Bernard told the inquiry she's disappointed in Canada's justice system.

"Every life matters, no matter your skin colour," she said. "It's so frustrating that there was no justice for [my great-grandmother]. Why wasn't her case looked into further?"

She said it felt like her great-grandmother being found in a metal drum symbolized her being disposable. "She wasn't disposable," she was loved, she said.

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      Commissioner Michèle Audette agreed changes to the justice system are needed. "We pray for that, we push for that," she said.

      Although the inquiry doesn't have the mandate to reopen police investigations, a new forensic review committee is attempting to answer questions about cases they've heard testimony about, Audette told reporters.

      The afternoon session featured one of the inquiry's first youth panels. The three members shared how their families are also living without answers, how losing a loved one has affected them and what changes they would like to see.

      Leona Simon, 28, of Elsipogtog First Nation, was there on behalf of her aunt Gladys whose partial remains were found near Campbellton in 2012, eight years after she disappeared.

      "Where we're from, we have a small community, and everybody asks you the same questions every day, like when we did find her partial remains, they kept asking how she passed. We don't know. So, it triggers you," said Simon, who sufffers from depression and anxiety.

      Police told the family there was no foul play involved, but she said her family doesn't believe the case was properly investigated.

      'She was stolen from us'

      Allan Sabattis from Oromocto First Nation lost his 26-year-old first cousin Jade in March. "She was stolen from us," he said of the woman who was like a sister to him.

      "She was treated like she didn't matter … and we found ourselves doing all the investigating."

      "I think we need to work on the systemic racism that's out there. And how RCMP respond to these situations, paramedics, the whole process that they follow."

      Madison Donovan, who is from Elsipogtog First Nation and lives in Moncton, said she never even got to meet her aunt "because of the horrible thing that happened to her."

      Her aunt's death and her own abusive experiences have affected her "emotionally and physically," she said.

      Shelter for sex-trade workers

      Donovan, mother to a son and three stepsons, said she suspects men who rape and kill women didn't receive love from their mothers and don't know how to treat women.

      She said she tries to show her boys how much she loves them and to teach them to be respectful to women.

      She said she'd also like to see more help for sex-trade workers to help them get off the street and reintegrate into society.

      "Not just a shelter," she said, but a place "that will bring them far in life."

      Donovan suggested a stepped process, where they can be safe and get "cleaned up," learn basic life skills, such as cooking and cleaning, and then get help finding their own home.

      Some of the youth panel's other recommendations included teaching First Nations culture and languages in schools, taking teaching outside the classroom to re-establish connections with nature, emphasizing the value of community elders and providing Aboriginal mental health-care facilities.

      Knowledge keepers

      Judy Clark said she was forced to leave her family and Mi'kmaq community behind when she married a non-Indigenous man in 1975. (CBC)

      On Tuesday, the inquiry heard from three elders — the Knowledge Keepers panel — who discussed the history of Indigenous people in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, including women losing their Indigenous status for marrying non-Indigenous men.​

      Judy Clark, president of the Aboriginal Women's Association on Prince Edward Island and an elder in residence at UPEI, said she lost her Mi'kmaq status when she married in 1975.

      Before she walked down the aisle, her father, who had been the chief of Lennox Island First Nation, asked her, "Are you sure you want this?"

      In order for people to understand who we are and where we came from, we have to share our story.- Judy Clark, elder

      But she was in love, so her father literally gave her away and she moved to B.C. with her husband, who was in the military. It was a difficult time, recalled an emotional Clark.

      "It's the loss of community, it is the loss of your family," she said. "They try to forget that you're there. You're dead, basically."

      Indigenous men who married non-Indigenous women, however, kept their status, said Clark, who has written a paper about discrimination under the Indian Act.

      Up until 1985, Aboriginal women could not return home, said Clark. She had to apply for status for her two daughters, who were born in the 1970s.

      "In order for people to understand who we are and where we came from, we have to share our story."

      The independent inquiry, launched in September 2016, has heard from more than 700 people so far.

      Its mandate is to "examine and report on the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada by looking at patterns and underlying factors," according to the website.

      The national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has heard from about 700 survivors and family members so far. Moncton is the 10th city to host the hearings. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

      With files from Gabrielle Fahmy