In Loretta Saunders murder, family says police at first thought she was white, MMIWG inquiry hears

The family of Loretta Saunders, a 26-year-old Inuk university student who was murdered in 2014, believe her light skin influenced the level of attention the case initially received, but say when police learned she was Indigenous, things changed.

Loretta Saunders's family says interaction with police changed once Inuk identity revealed

Delilah Saunders, sister of Loretta Saunders, testifies Monday, Oct. 30, 2017, during the first day of hearings in Membertou First Nation, N.S., of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. To her left is sister Audrey Saunders. (Nic Maloney/CBC)

The family of Loretta Saunders, a 26-year-old Inuk university student who was murdered in 2014, believe her light skin influenced the level of attention the case initially received.

Saunders' family were the first to testify Monday on the first day of hearings held by the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls which travelled to the Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton this week.

The inquiry has received about 57 applications from family members and survivors of violence to testify over the next three days. The majority of the applications, including walk-ins, are from Nova Scotia, but a handful also come from New Brunswick, according to inquiry officials.

When they said she was a white woman, I would call to the investigators and they would answer to me and I would talk personally to the investigators- Miriam Saunders

Commissioners Michèle Audette and Qajaq Robinson are in Membertou, just outside Sydney, N.S., for the hearings.

Loretta Saunders's mother, Miriam Saunders, said she wept when initial media and police reports following her daughter's disappearance said "a white woman was missing." She said Halifax police also treated the family differently while they believed her daughter was white. 

"When they said she was a white woman, I would call to the investigators and they would answer to me and I would talk personally to the investigators and after, when they started calling her Inuk, I had to start swearing and everything to get answers," said Miriam Saunders. "After that, I started talking to this go-between."

Halifax Regional Police issued a statement saying that, as part of a set process, a family liaison officer is always assigned to cases involving homicides and missing persons who "is responsible for ensuring effective communication with the family, to the extent possible without jeopardizing the investigation."

Murderers caught

Saunders was murdered in Feb.13, 2014 over $430 in rent owed by the couple Blake Leggette and Victoria Henneberry, who were subletting her apartment. Leggette killed Saunders while Henneberry watched. They put Saunders's body in a hockey bag and dumped her along the Trans-Canada Highway near Salisbury, N.B., where she was found two weeks later.

She was working on an honours thesis studying the reasons behind the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls at the time of her death, her mother said during the testimony.

"Loretta was murdered for just a little bit of rent money by those cold-blooded killers, cowardly, cowardly cold-blooded killers," said father Clayton Saunders, who recounted how he used to call his daughter "princess" and "girly-girl."

Sister alleges improper conduct by counsellor 

Her sister Delilah testified about the memories she shared with her sister, how they lived together in the Halifax apartment where she was killed and about finding out Loretta Saunders was pregnant in a phone call while on a beach vacation.

"Loretta was my best friend, she was my other half," said Delilah Saunders. "We didn't hide anything from each other."

She said Loretta Saunders found out she was pregnant shortly before her death.

Delilah Saunders also alleged improper conduct by the counsellor assigned to her by victims' services. She said the male counsellor often commented about her sister's looks during sessions and at one point began touching her leg.

"I was in a really bad place, I was homeless, I never ended up doing it, but I spoke to him about me stripping and stuff, doing sex work," she said. "He started touching my leg...and I was trying to confide in him as a counsellor. I was trying to get out of that state of mind."

She also said the counsellor's name came up in a list of people who called in a tip during the initial search for her sister.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Commissioner Qajaq Robinson says the inquiry plans to ask the federal government to extend its deadline.

The Nova Scotia provincial government issued a statement saying their Victim Services Program had not received any complaints against any counsellors. 

"If we were to receive a complaint, we would take it very seriously," said the statement.

Inquiry expected to submit request for extension soon

The inquiry is expected on Wednesday to release an interim report in Ottawa. The report is expected to analyze previous research done into the causes behind the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Indigenous women across the country.

Commissioner Robinson told reporters Monday morning the inquiry is close to filing a submission with the federal government requesting a time extension for its hearings.

The inquiry is expected to hear Tuesday from a representative for the family of Victoria Paul, who died in hospital after suffering a fatal stroke while in the custody of Truro, N.S., police in 2009.

The inquiry is also expecting testimony from the Vanessa Brooks, the sister of Tanya Brooks, whose murder remains unsolved. Brooks's  body was found in 2009 near a Halifax school in the city's north-end. The family of Virginia Pictou Noyes who disappeared in northern Maine back in 1994, is expected to testify on Wednesday. The family continues to search for her.