Bags full of tears: how the MMIWG inquiry is honouring, healing trauma

Traditional medicines, elders and counsellors are all on standby to help families and survivors get through their painful testimony.

35-member health team supporting families and survivors who testify

People are asked to put their tear-soaked tissues in these bags so they can be burned in the sacred fire during the closing ceremony. (Jillian Taylor/ CBC)

Beside nearly every box of tissues is a brown paper bag labelled "tears."

The national inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is collecting every tear shed during its week in Winnipeg.

"Tears are medicine and that medicine has been given to us from the creator," said Terrellyn Fearn, who is the director of health and community relations.

At the end of every day, those bags are collected and the tear-soaked tissues are taken to the sacred fire at The Forks. Fearn said the tears will be honoured in the closing ceremony on Friday.

"All of those tears will be put into the fire and burned," she explained. "Then they will be brought up through the smoke back up to their loved ones, to the creator."

The MMIWG national inquiry health team consists of about 35 people, including elders, counsellors, Indigenous therapists and spiritual faith based supports. (CBC)
Fearn said that is just one of the ways the inquiry is supporting families and survivors. The health team is made up of about 35 people ranging from elders to counsellors to Indigenous therapists. Fearn said her team takes direction from what those testifying want and need.

"Telling their story, especially in the public venue, with a lot of people watching can be very impactful," she said. "It's really about providing a safe space for them to sit together and then move on from there."

There is also a massage therapist and reiki practitioner on hand, as well as a drum group to sing to families and survivors to lift their spirits.

Supports will remain after inquiry leaves

Fearn said her team is working with local communities and organizations to make sure health supports are in place after the inquiry has left.

Sagkeeng has sent four health support workers to the inquiry to support its families. Councillor Marilyn Courchene said the first nation has upwards of 22 MMIWG families.

"Once the inquiry is done ... those wounds will still be open, those wounds will still be severed," she said. "We want to ensure we have the wellness centre on board to take care of them back home. The self-care is important for them to continue and move on."

Courchene said that mental health and emotional support will be available to families and survivors who live both in and out of the community. 

Trauma and healing: supporting families at the MMIWG national inquiry

5 years ago
Duration 2:08
It's been four painful days of testimony at the National Inquiry. Dozens of families and survivors have shared their stories of loss and grief. Around 80 are expected to testify and all of them need emotional support. CBC's Jillian Taylor has more on the health resources available to families and survivors.

Grandmothers circle

So far 836 families and survivors have registered to testify across the country. In Manitoba, 120 have put their names forward and 80 will be heard this week in Winnipeg. 

While the commissioners won't hear all of these stories, they are taking in a lot of pain.

"The stories are difficult to hear," said commissioner Brian Eyolfson.

To keep him healthy, he has a spiritual grandmother by his side. Eyolfson said he offered Laureen Blue Waters tobacco when the inquiry started and asked her to be his support.
Commissioner Brian Eyolfson offered Laureen Blue Waters tobacco at the start of the MMIWG national inquiry to ask her to be his spiritual grandmother. (Marouane Refak/CBC)

"I prayed with it [tobacco] and did pipe ceremony with it," said Blue Waters. "It is very important work and I agreed to do that for him."

Blue Waters travels with Eyolfson to hearings, facilitates ceremonies and is also just a phone call away when he needs to decompress.

"The last set of hearings it was, as I say, a lot of trauma that people were exposing," said the grandmother. "This work is not for everyone ... so I'm here."

"I really appreciate having the support that is provided so we can do the good work for the families," he said.

Blue Waters is one of 11 women who are part of the grandmothers circle in Winnipeg. They offer emotional and spiritual support to anyone at the inquiry who needs it.


Jillian Taylor

CBC Reporter

Jillian Taylor has been with CBC Manitoba since 2012 and has been working as a journalist for nearly 15 years. She was born and raised in Manitoba and is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation. In 2014, she was awarded the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's travel bursary, which took her to Australia to work with Indigenous journalists. Find her on Twitter: @JillianLTaylor