Missing and murdered indigenous women inquiry resonates in Atlantic Canada

The Liberal government's announcement about an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women is being welcomed by those closest to Loretta Saunders, an Inuk woman from Labrador who was murdered in Halifax almost two years ago.

Family and friends of Loretta Saunders say she was 'passionate' about getting government to start inquiry

The body of Loretta Saunders, a 26-year-old Inuk woman, was found on the median of Route 2 of the Trans-Canada Highway, west of Salisbury, N.B. on Feb. 26. Her killers were sentenced to life in prison in April. (Facebook)

The Liberal government's announcement about an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women is being welcomed by those closest to Loretta Saunders, an Inuk woman from Labrador who was murdered in Halifax almost two years ago. 

"It was one of things that my daughter was really fighting for. She really wanted to see it done," said Miriam Saunders, Loretta Saunders's mother.

On Tuesday, three federal ministers said the government is moving forward with the first phase of an inquiry that's expected to cost about $40 million and take at least two years.

Miriam Saunders was keenly watching the announcement at her home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. 

"To me, I'm happy to see it — and for the groups that were fighting for it," she told CBC's Mainstreet. 

"And I'm sorry that it took my daughter's death to even come to terms with the words that I didn't even know. We're so far in darkness and it took my daughter's death for me to even realize how so many of us here don't have help. And now I know."

The announcement was led by Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs; Patricia Hajdu, the Minister of the Status of Women; and Jody Wilson-Raybould, the Minister of Justice.

"Over the last decade, many many voices have been heard, asking for a national inquiry. We have also seen many reports, talking about the need to know more about this issue," Bennett said.

"The need to undertake a national inquiry is clear. This is a priority for me, for my colleagues and for the government."

'It is time for justice'

Since 1980, about 1,100 aboriginal women in Canada have gone missing or been killed.

For years, the Conservative government led by Stephen Harper resisted calls for an inquiry, saying the problem shouldn't be viewed as a sociological one but a criminal issue that could be solved by improving laws that prevent crime.

Justin Trudeau told voters during the recent federal election that if his party was elected, the Liberals would call an inquiry and now his government is moving ahead on that promise.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould lays out the first steps of her Liberal government's commitment to hold an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women. (CBC News)

Today's announcement on Parliament Hill began with a prayer from elder Claudette Commanda who's a member of the Algonquin First Nation.

"Creator, I ask that the grandmothers and the grandfathers of the four directions join us today.

"We remember in our prayers the families of our women and our girls. Comfort them, Creator, with your kindness and your love and we will embrace this work in a good way."

Commanda also told the crowd that many Canadians have been waiting a long time for this.

"It is time to hear their voices. It is time for justice."

Family focus

Heidi Marshall, with Nova Scotia Native Women's Association, says the government's announcement had a progressive tone. 

"As I listened to the announcement today, I was very touched by Jody Wilson-Raybould's remarks and also Carolyn Bennett's remarks," Marshall said. 

"I heard things like 'inclusive', 'culturally relevant', 'talking to the families' and one thing that it really stresses is that this is not just an indigenous problem. It's a societal issue."

Marshall thinks it's a good idea to consult with the families of victims before the government proceeds with the inquiry itself.

"It has to be community driven," she said. 

"We need to have community-led responses by the families of missing and murdered aboriginal women. We need to honour these women that we lost. We need to keep them in our hearts. We need to keep them alive in our hearts."

Marshall hopes the inquiry will also eventually address the root causes of violence.

"We need to educate society on indigenous issues. We need to discuss the root causes and look at the poverty in indigenous communities right now."

'I was feeling pretty emotional'

The announcement was also particularly poignant for Darryl Leroux, a professor of sociology and criminology at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.

He was Loretta Saunders's thesis advisor when she was murdered.

"I was feeling pretty emotional. I was chatting with Delilah, Loretta's sister at the same time [while I watched the announcement] so that made it a little bit more raw," Leroux said.

Saunders's thesis focused on the problem of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

"I was thinking of Loretta and a number of other family members that I've gotten to know in the past two years now because of what happened to Loretta. So I was thinking about a lot of people that I know and at least on the level of a public announcement of this magnitude how relieved many of them would be feeling."

Leroux says he was pleasantly surprised by how honest and direct the ministers were in their speeches to the crowd on Parliament Hill.

"Carolyn Bennett basically finished the press conference by saying that racism and sexism kill, and that she was hoping that Canadians would come to understand that," he said.

"As someone who works on these topics and works with students like Loretta and others who are really passionate about their concerns for justice when it comes to indigenous people — I think that was really a pleasant surprise."