'Another kind of pain': Survivors, family members share grief at MMIWG hearings in N.B.

The mother of an Indigenous girl who was murdered in northern New Brunswick in 2009 called for tougher laws in Canada Tuesday during the first of two days of community hearings in Moncton, N.B., as part of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

About 30 family members, survivors expected to speak during 2 days of hearings

Pamela Fillier and her husband Fred shared information Tuesday about their daughter Hilary Bonnell's 2009 murder as part of the truth-gathering process of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

The mother of an Indigenous girl who was murdered in northern New Brunswick in 2009 is calling for tougher laws in Canada.

"If you murder someone, you shouldn't be allowed out," Pamela Fillier said Tuesday in Moncton, N.B., during a community hearing as part of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Fillier's daughter, Hilary Bonnell, was 16 when she was killed by her first cousin, Curtis Bonnell, 29.

Hilary's disappearance from Esgenoopetitj First Nation, a community north of Moncton also known as Burnt Church, sparked an extensive search in September of that year.​ Her body was found in a wooded area near Tracadie-Sheila two months later.

Curtis Bonnell, was found guilty in 2012 of first-degree murder with the Crown arguing he killed Hilary during a sexual assault and unlawful confinement.

Bonnell was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years, but his case fell under the so-called faint hope clause, which will allow him to apply for early parole after 15 years.

"If you take someone's life, you shouldn't have that option to come out again," said Fillier, a member of the National Family Advisory Circle.

"My little girl can't come home. He shouldn't be allowed to ever go home."

I don't want to see anybody else feel the way I felt.— Pamela  Fillier

Fillier also wants to see tougher laws against rapists and pedophiles. Her husband Fred said he finds it "sickening" when people who are deemed a high-risk to reoffend are released. He contends they should be castrated or have their foreheads tattooed.

Once an offender has violated someone else's civil rights, charter protections should no longer apply to them, he argued.

"I want to … prevent this from happening to someone else," Pamela Fillier said.

"My goal is not just to protect my people. It's for all the little girls out there," she told reporters at the Four Points by Sheraton Moncton.

About 30 family members and survivors are expected to speak through a variety of formats — public and private hearings, sharing circle testimonies and artistic expression panels — during the two days of hearings that started Tuesday.

Moncton is the first and only stop in New Brunswick for the MMIWG panel.

The independent inquiry was launched in September 2016 in response to calls for action by Indigenous families and groups.

'Difficult conversation … we have to get right'

The number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada is estimated at more than 4,000. Indigenous women are five times more likely to die under violent circumstances.

The inquiry's 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.

MMIWG commissioner Michèle Audette said she has heard stories of "human trafficking, sexual exploitation, the impact of the residential schools, racism, discrimination, the lack of response from the justice system, or the relationship with the police.

"When one person has everything, you're like, whoa, this inquiry has a space and we need to do the work," said Audette.

It's a "critical, difficult conversation … that we have to get right," she said.

Pamela Fillier, whose daughter Hilary Bonnell was found dead two months after she vanished from the Esgenoopetitj First Nation in 2009, told reporters she hopes the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls will make a difference, not only for Indigenous women, but for all women in Canada. 1:23

Fillier said she's "very hopeful" the hearings will make a difference.

"Most of the families, that's all we have is hope. We can only hope that the right thing will be done. And the right thing is to get tougher laws."

"I don't want to see anybody else feel the way I felt," she said.

Fillier described losing her daughter as a whole new pain, one that time doesn't heal.

"It doesn't end when you bury your child, it doesn't end there," she said. "It's just the beginning of another kind of pain.

She said it's still difficult nine years later. She mostly stays home and keeps to herself.

"They say time heals wounds. Not when you lose your child.... Time doesn't heal that."

For Fillier, time serves only as a reminder of all the milestones she missed out on with her daughter, including her graduation, prom, wedding and becoming a mother herself, she said.

Her daughter's murder has changed her for life, she said. "I never had hate in my heart" before.

'Tear bags' were placed on seats in the MMIWG gallery in Moncton on Tuesday. Used tissues will be gathered and burned at the end of this week's hearings. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Fillier wiped away tears as she shared memories of her daughter, who loved to sing and dance and shop. She described Hilary as smart, fun and carefree.

"She was just so full of life. She lit up my house."

When Hilary went missing, her family tried to find her. When they couldn't, Fillier called the police. "I thought if I told them, 'I can't find my daughter,' that they would look for her, but they didn't."

Instead, it was members of her community who searched. Fillier said it was only after she contacted the media that the police start looking.

Fillier also criticized the media for sensationalizing reports about her daughter leading up to Bonnell's trial.

More support for families

Her husband said families of victims need for more support during trials and other court proceedings.

He said, for example, that his children from a previous relationship were denied victim services because they weren't considered family even though they had loved Hilary for seven years.

He suggested even having a designated room at the courthouse for families to get a break from hearing harsh testimony would be helpful.

Fillier said the family wasn't even notified when Bonnell appealed his conviction. They only found out because a reporter asked if they planned to attend the hearing, she said.

The commissioner thanked the Filliers for their courage in sharing their story. She said she felt proud to be with them and described their recommendations as very important to the "historical" inquiry.

"We are blessed and pleased.… We will be listening and receiving the truth of more than 30 families and survivors for the next two days," said Audette.

"It's very important we are here in this beautiful territory."

More than 700 people have already shared their stories through the national inquiry, but it has been plagued from the start with staff turnover and concerns over aftercare, emotional and mental-health support for people who have testified about losing loved ones.

"The demand of families is so huge," she said. "They want to share their stories."

The inquiry's final report is due in November, but the commission is trying to get its mandate extended so it can visit more communities across the country.

The proceedings are open to the public.

The Moncton hearings continue on Wednesday at 9 a.m. AT with a youth panel that will include Indigenous New Brunswickers.

"It's going to … make sure that when we write those recommendations, the youth perspective is there and we need to have this across Canada," the commissioner said.  

Photographs of the missing and murdered are displayed during the Thunder Bay, Ont., portion of the hearings by the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

With files from Gabrielle Fahmy