Victim's brother questions police responses to MMIWG cases during hearings in Edmonton

Alberta families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are sharing their experiences with the national Inquiry, which is holding hearings in Edmonton this week.

'Nobody can tell us my sister is less important than anybody,' says Paul Tuccaro

Paul Tuccaro shakes the hand of Marion Buller, chief commissioner of the MMIWG National Inquiry, after speaking at the Edmonton hearings Tuesday.

Stopping to gather himself and wipe away tears, Paul Tuccaro shared stories about his sister's laugh and how she loved to play music for his children.

Tuccaro was the first person to speak Tuesday to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls, which is holding its community hearings in Edmonton this week.

"My kids really loved her," Tuccaro told the commissioners.

Tuccaro, from Fort Chipewyan, Alta., has devoted himself to helping find the killer of his sister, Amber, whose body was discovered in Leduc County in 2012.

She went missing in 2010 after travelling to Edmonton with a friend.

Her brother made an emotional plea for a change in culture among police, whom he still believes could have responded differently when first informed about the case.

"Nobody can tell us my sister is less important than anybody," Tuccaro told the inquiry at the Edmonton Inn Hotel.

Paul Tuccaro found it hard to speak at times as he remembered his sister and shared his frustration about the handling of her case. (CBC)

Occasionally pausing to make sure he was ready to talk clearly, Tuccaro said it was hard to speak about what his family has been through.

He said the RCMP initially suggested Amber, 20, was "probably out partying" and the family should wait 24 hours before filing a missing person's report.

Tuccaro recalled the pain his family felt when they heard the police had thrown away her belongings, found in a hotel in Nisku, just south of Edmonton.

The message he kept returning to in his testimony was that he thinks some officers still hold stereotypes about Indigenous people and don't treat their cases as seriously as they should.

Police aware of family's issues - RCMP

"When it's a non-native woman or other stuff, it's plastered all over," he said.

RCMP Cpl. Hal Turnbull said police can't respond to specific cases but the investigative team handling Amber Tuccaro's file is fully aware of issues raised by the family.

He said police are addressing the issues directly with a member of Amber's family. The inquiry is a time, he said, for the families and survivors of violence to be heard.

Turnbull could not give any update on the investigation but said the file is being actively pursued by the RCMP.

Elders are attending the hearings to support the families.

Ivy Raine, who held an opening prayer, said it's painful to see so many people hurting but encouraging that people have the courage to speak out.

"I hope everyone will leave this place feeling healed, or on their way to a healing journey," Raine said.

Ivy Raine offers prayers for healing for the families at the inquiry.

Tissues were on hand for people in the audience. They were asked to place those they used into brown paper bags labelled "tears," which will be burned in a sacred fire.

Next to the commissioners is an empty chair covered with a blanket. Known as the spirit chair, it honours women and girls who have not returned home.

Health workers will be on hand throughout the week to support people.

"The biggest and most important thing is to show them that we care," said Maggie Hodgson, who is a part of the team.

A blanket covers the 'spirit chair' at the inquiry to remember those who never returned home.

The inquiry's chief commissioner, Marion Buller, said listening and sharing in the loss of each family's loved one is critical to gain insight into the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

The commission's interim report concluded it's still unclear how many cases there are.

But the CBC's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls database identifies 60 from Alberta.  

Chief commissioner Marion Buller said the inquiry is examining systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

Tuccaro told the inquiry one of the hardest things he has gone through was when his own daughter went on a recent field trip to Calgary.

He said he felt like there's already a "strike against her" as an Indigenous girl, and spoke of his worry when she was away. He said he made sure there was somebody with her at every moment.

He said the grief will never leave him, but hopes what he told the inquiry can lead to changes for others.

The inquiry continues it's Edmonton hearings Wednesday and Thursday.