After the inquiry: Support needed to help families retraumatized by MMIWG testimony, advocates say

The emotional wounds reopened by testifying at the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry will take a long time to heal, advocates say.

Commission and local groups will continue to help families in coming weeks

A sacred fire that burned outside the MMIWG community hearings in Smithers, B.C., will be burned once a week until it is no longer needed to help families heal. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

At the end of every day of testimony at the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry hearings in Smithers, B.C., support workers would gather up used tissue paper that had been placed in paper bags and put them in a sacred fire burning outside.

"Those tears are medicine," explained Terrellyn Fearn, the director of health and community relations for the inquiry. "We were given those tears by the Creator ... so those tears and that medicine is powerful and they're very important to us."

A tissue is discarded into a paper bag to be burned in a sacred fire during hearings at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in Smithers, B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

The tear bag and sacred fire were just some of the numerous ways the inquiry worked with the local community to provide support to the families participating in the community hearings.

Fearn explained that after the first round of hearings in Whitehorse, the commission learned the importance of working with local organizations for outreach and support.

"We've really shifted our gears in the last four weeks," she said, explaining that workers started meeting with families and local Indigenous organizations weeks before the hearings officially arrived in Smithers.

Sandra Harris of Smithers was one of the support workers on hand at MMIWG community hearings in her community. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Dozens of people in purple shirts were on site who could be turned to for any form of help.

They were able to provide or direct people to any number of services, from an Elder's room to massage to space for one-on-one counselling.

A toll-free support line is available in multiple languages to help anyone affected by the MMWIG testimony. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Gladys Radek, a long-time advocate for families of missing and murdered women and one of the testifiers, said the support was appreciated and necessary.

"The inquiry, I find, has retraumatized everything," she said.

"Everybody's reliving the sordid history that we have here in Canada in regards to not only the residential school but the missing and murdered women."

Many of the support workers came from the local Dze L K'ant Friendship Centre Society, organized under Mel Bazil. 

Mel Bazil provided cultural support and healing throughout the MMIWG inquiry community hearings in Smithers, B.C. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Bazil also acted as a fire keeper, helping tend to the sacred flame day and night.

"[It's] a constant reminder that we're not alone in our struggles," he explained. 

"Creator is always with us. We have help."

Bazil said help will remain in place long after the inquiry has left, with sacred fire and support sessions offered on a weekly basis until they are no longer needed.

"Again and again and again until the families tell us 'we're good,'" he said.

With files from Chantelle Bellrichard