Indigenous

Justin Trudeau's MMIW inquiry should be family-driven, organizers say

Loved ones of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls are calling on prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau to put families at the forefront of a national inquiry into the issue.

Organizer of #ourinquiry campaign says families of MMIW 'live and breathe' the issue everyday

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      Loved ones of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls are calling on prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau to put families at the forefront of a national inquiry into the issue.

      "We heard him say after the election, that he is going to speak with stakeholders, but there was no mention of families in there," said Bernadette Smith.

      Smith is taking the lead in #ourinquiry, a campaign that's picking up on social media. Her sister Claudette Osborne has been missing from Winnipeg since July 24, 2008.

      "The families have been living it. They know it. You know it is something they live and breathe everyday," Smith said.

      Along with Nahanni Fontaine, Manitoba's special advisor on aboriginal women's issues, Smith brought together dozens of families in Manitoba, who are now reaching out to families across the country.

      What do family members want from an inquiry?

      Identify the gaps
      Wendy Goulet, cousin of Krystle Knott says a family driven inquiry will help identify gaps in reporting women and girls who go missing. (submitted by Wendy Goulet)

      Wendy Goulet's cousin Krystle Knott, of Dawson Creek, B.C., went missing on Feb. 18, 2005.

      What Goulet wants from an inquiry: "Hearing directly [about] what people are going through and then maybe we can see change. Identify the gaps and maybe some things are easy fixes. Or maybe not, but hear what they have gone through," Goulet said.

      Knott's skull was found buried in a shallow grave near Grande Prairie, Alta., on May 21, 2011, next to Rene Gunning.

      Gunning and Knott went missing from the West Edmonton Mall. Gunning got the attention of police and media but Knott didn't, even though her aunt told the RCMP she was missing.

      "It was like Krystle didn't have a name or … a life. It wasn't until she turned 19 in B.C. that they finally identified that she went missing in 2005 with Rene Gunning," she said.

      As part of her own healing, Goulet helped start up the annual Sisters in Spirit walk in Peace River in 2010.

      "Originally, we just read names of women," explained Goulet.  It inspired her to start doing research about the women and girls.

      "Some of them, I didn't even know they are missing,obviously their family knew … but we didn't know, the community didn't," Goulet said.

      Attack systemic racism

      Delilah Saunders is the sister of Loretta Saunders. She would like to see systemic change come from an inquiry. (submitted by Delilah Saunders)

      Delilah Saunders sister Loretta Saunders was murdered in Halifax in 2014.

      Delilah learned of her sister's death through a reporter.

      "It never leaves my mind," Saunders said of the insensitivity her family has been exposed to.

      "I think it's a symptom of the intricate and systemic negligence from society as a whole."

      Saunders says an inquiry will force systemic change from the government, policing authorities and the media.

      "I hope it addresses the racism that is deeply embedded in our society," she said.  

      "When Loretta went missing, the pressure on my family, the worry, and not knowing. Two weeks was too long for me, I can't imagine how I would cope with not knowing for months, years or decades."

      She says because families are often the ones to take the lead on ground searches, it only makes sense to have to include them.

      "I think it will give a lot of families courage to talk about it, too. I've met families who have loved ones who have been missing for 25, 30 years. It's not an isolated incident."

      Appoint an indigenous commissioner
      Robert Pictou's sister Virginia Pictou went missing over 22 years ago. He would like to see an Indigenous commissioner lead the inquiry. (submitted by Robert Pictou)

      Robert Pictou's sister Virgina Pictou went missing in Maine, in 1993.

      For two decades Robert Pictou of Shubenacadie First Nation in Nova Scotia hid his own grief surrounding the disappearance of his sister Virginia from Maine in 1993.

      "I could only bring my healing of my missing sister to a certain point and then from there I had to stop that healing process because I had to be stronger for others," Pictou said.

      Pictou wants to see Trudeau appoint an indigenous commissioner to lead an inquiry.

      "What I hope that he does is … taps into the existing work that's being done out there already," he said.

      Pictou now works in broadcasting in Terrace, B.C., for CBC affiliate CFTKTV as the producer and host of its weekly talk show Open Connection.

      "I am fortunate enough where I have something that's called air time where I can bring things to the forefront with the murdered and missing women [issue] that is going on," he said, adding that goes for all families affected, including his own.

      Respect and dignity

      Bernadette Smith's sister Claudette Osborne disappeared in 2008 and hasn't been seen since. (CBC)
      Smith's sister Claudette Osborne has been missing from Winnipeg since July 24, 2008.

      Smith said above all else, a family-driven inquiry will give these women and girls the respect and dignity they deserve.

      "They are often portrayed as someone who doesn't have a job, or disposable. That no one cares about them, when in fact they have loved ones waiting for them," Smith said.

      "[Claudette's] got a teenager now. [Her kids] know that their mother isn't there and we don't know where she is. We just try to keep her memory alive with them through telling stories about her and helping them know who she was as a person."

      Smith said in the seven years since her sister went missing, there have been some small changes in how these cases are handled, but it's only because the families have fought long and hard for it.

      "We were looking at the justice system, policing, having people — when they are doing the inquiry — visit the communities of these people who have gone missing or been murdered," Smith said.

      About the Author

      Tiar Wilson was raised in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Manitoba. She's reported for APTN National News, CBC Winnipeg, and CBC North. Tiar is also involved with CBC's database of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and continues to share the stories of these women, their families and communities. She's currently reporting for CBC Aboriginal. @yourpaltiar.