'We're broken inside,' sister of missing woman tells MMIWG inquiry in Thompson, Man.

After 20 years of looking for her sister, Janet Lowther says she stopped and tattooed "Amanda" on her body so they could grow old together.

Action for long-term healing and wellness for those who have testified vital, inquiry's health director says

Amanda Bartlett was last seen in Winnipeg in July 1996. She was 17 years old. (Project Disappear)

After 20 years of looking for her sister, Janet Lowther says she stopped and tattooed "Amanda" on her body so they could grow old together.

"I don't remember the sound of her voice," said Lowther of her older sister, Amanda Bartlett.

Bartlett was 17 years old when she disappeared in 1996.

Lowther and her mother, Janet Bignell, shared their story of loss and frustration Wednesday with commissioner Michèle Audette at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in the northern Manitoba city of Thompson.

"To this day, I don't even know whether she is even gone or she is still here," said Bignell. "I've seen a medicine man, I've seen a medium, trying to get help to locate my girl."

The women testified that Bartlett was in the care of Child and Family Services when she left the family home in The Pas to attend high school in Winnipeg. That was the last time they saw her.

Janet Lowther and Helen Bignell shared the story of Amanda Bartlett's disappearance at the MMIWG inquiry in Thompson on Wednesday. (APTN National News)
The family previously told CBC News that weeks after Bartlett left, a letter arrived from CFS informing them that she had run away from her group home and the agency had no obligation to follow her after she left.

"I waited for her," said Bignell. "She would always get ahold of one of the family to let them know where she was."

The family said they tried to report Bartlett missing to police but they were bounced back and forth between RCMP and the Winnipeg Police Service over who was responsible for trying to find her.

She said it took 12 years, and the help of Amnesty International, to have Bartlett classified as a missing person.

"Why was my word, and my mom's word, not good enough? Why did they have to make us wait so long?" said Lowther.

She said her family is still hurting after 22 years and that in the past year, they suffered even more loss. Lowther testified that her mother is grieving after her sister and granddaughter took their own lives.

"We're broken inside," said Lowther.

Cover traditional healing: health director

"This issue that we are dealing with, that we're all impacted by, is live," said Terrellyn Fearn, who is the inquiry's health director.

"The fact that it is live and we are walking through it while they're trying to heal … speaks to the importance and need for actions to happen now."

She said that action is long-term healing and wellness, in whatever form the family or survivor desires.

"We have a family member who shared they want to engage in ceremonial aspects, but through their work employee-assistance program it's not something that was identified," Fearn said.

The inquiry's aftercare team picked up the cost for the healing. But Fearn said in the future, they hope to have traditional healing recognized for coverage by health plans and the government.

"We want to help change the narrative on what healing and wellness means to Indigenous people," she said.

The two-day hearing in Thompson wrapped on Wednesday after 25 families and survivors shared their stories. Fearn said aftercare was discussed with each of them before they testified. 

Some who testified at the inquiry in Winnipeg in October say they have yet to receive aftercare. Fearn said of the 86 who shared stories, they have yet to follow up with 26 families and survivors.

The inquiry's final hearing is in Vancouver next month.

About the Author

Jillian Taylor

CBC Reporter

Jillian Taylor has been with CBC Manitoba since 2012 and has been reporting for a decade. 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