Tuesday's community hearings for the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Thunder Bay, Ont., heard from two families from a northwestern Ontario First Nation seeking answers about their loved ones for more than 20 years.
Commissioners heard from the families of Viola Panacheese and Sarah Skunk on Tuesday. Panacheese, 42, was reported missing in Sioux Lookout, Ont., in 1991, Skunk, 43, was last seen in Thunder Bay in 1995. Both women were from Mishkeegogamang First Nation, located about 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, near Pickle Lake.
"There are communities who have higher numbers of murders and missing women," said Connie Gray-McKay, a former chief of Mishkeegogamang, who accompanied Skunk's family during their testimony. "We have two missing women, a missing young man and many murdered individuals and if you look at the history of Mishkeegogamang, you'll see a history of trauma."
The community of 900 has experienced a disproportionate number of missing and murdered, community leadership has said, including the death of Rena Fox in 2003. There are also a number of unsolved cases within the community as well.
Three of Skunk's sisters spoke to the inquiry on Tuesday. Mary — the oldest of seven girls in the family — said she and Sarah never had a "teenage life together;" the two were sent to reform schools in the 1960s, thousands of kilometres away from their community after committing property crimes — Sarah was "sent away" for breaking windows, she said.
The two only saw each other periodically over the subsequent decades.
Sarah was 12 years old when she was sent away from home in 1966, Mary says for breaking windows. The 2 sisters last saw each other in 1985 but didn’t speak, something Mary now wishes they did #MMIWG— @CBCMattProkop
Mary Skunk's voice is drenched in regret mixed with her tears as she says she wishes she had talked to her sister more that last time they saw each other in Thunder Bay in 1985.— @JorgeBarrera
"A lot of times I ask God, where is she? Help me. Somehow, someway...to be at peace with myself."
Mary testified that she hadn't seen Sarah in the 10 years prior to her disappearance.
"I keep hoping that I wish she would come home, wherever she is," Mary Skunk said through tears. "I just ask myself sometimes, or say out loud or write on a note 'Sarah, where are you?' Where is she? What happened to her?"
"I don't think she was happy, either ... when she was young anyways, she was 12 years old when she got sent away," she continued.
Several years after Sarah's disappearance, her sisters began pushing the issue with police and doing their own searching, Glenda Skunk told the inquiry. The search for Skunk officially began November 2, 2001, she said.
"Today, I still hope that she's out there somewhere [but] maybe she just doesn't want to be found," Glenda said. "I'm hoping that one day we'll see her."
'Her file was lost'
Before commissioners heard about Sarah Skunk's story, the inquiry heard from the family of Viola Panacheese. Lilly Southwind, her oldest child, said her parents had an on-again-off-again relationship for years, leading up to Panacheese's disappearance.
Panacheese was living in Winnipeg at the time, Southwind said, and was in Sioux Lookout after bringing her grandchildren back from a trip. Southwind said her parents were trying to make the relationship work; her father — who worked as a miner — told her "keep mom here until I come back [from a two week stint at the mine]"
Panacheese was last seen on Lakeshore Avenue in Sioux Lookout. Southwind said that Ontario Provincial Police were responsive when they filed a missing person report, using a helicopter and canine unit in the search and keeping the family updated.
Several years later, Southwind said she got a shock when she tried to retrieve photos of her mother from police the family had provided to help with the search.
"Her file was lost," Southwind told the inquiry, adding that she was told it likely happened when OPP in Sioux Lookout were preparing to move into a new building. "That sergeant told me her file may have gone into the burn pile."
File “may have gone in the burn pile” Lilly was told, police then told her they were trying to rebuild the file from officers’ notes. Lilly says many people could not be interviewed again, though #MMIWG— @CBCMattProkop
"I just sat there and I was in shock," she said.
While police have attempted to rebuild the file, Southwind said some of the information can never be recaptured as people interviewed have since died. She said her mom's file isn't even in Sioux Lookout anymore, rather in a vault in Orillia. The OPP have their headquarters there.
"I wouldn't want any family ever to go through dealing with all of this like we have" she said.
The Thunder Bay hearings for the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls inquiry are scheduled to wrap up on Wednesday. Those sessions are closed to the public.