MMIW consultations 'healing' for sister of missing indigenous woman

As the Liberal ministers hold their nationwide pre-inquiry consultations on missing and murdered indigenous women, people like Cheryl McDonald, a Mohawk woman from Kanesatake, are sharing their painful stories.

Carleen Marie went missing in Akwesasne in 1988, and her remains were found 7 weeks later

Cheryl McDonald, from Akwesasne in southwestern Quebec, says her sister left home one day in 1988 and never came back. (CBC)

As the Liberal government holds nationwide pre-inquiry consultations on missing and murdered indigenous women, people like Cheryl McDonald, a Mohawk woman from Kanesatake, are sharing their painful stories.

McDonald was among indigenous people who met with federal ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould, Carolyn Bennett, and Mélanie Joly in Montreal on Friday.

McDonald's sister, Carleen Marie McDonald, went missing in Akwesasne in 1988.

Her remains were found by a deer hunter seven weeks later.

Cheryl McDonald spoke with CBC Montreal's Homerun about the consultations and why it's important for First Nations people to share stories of their missing and murdered loved ones.

Here is some of that conversation:

On why she attended the consultation

Cheryl McDonald (centre), her mother Agnes Beauvais McDonald (left) and Viviane Michel, president of the Quebec Native Women Inc., listen to speeches during the release of a report on missing and murdered indigenous women in Quebec last month. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

This is my second pre-inquiry attendance. It was really just to be a peaceful presence for the families that are coming out for the first time.

For the first time, they're actually coming together as a group with other First Nations and [they] see that they aren't suffering in silence alone anymore, that there is an awakening of families coming forward and telling their tragic and painful stories of loss, and looking for answers, looking for a place where they can express that pain.

On what the consultations are like

Everyone who wants to has a chance to say something. They're given the time they need, they're given support. The ministers are there, listening. It's really [like a] family-structured gathering. You see people from all ages and more and more men coming to these things.

I wasn't sure if I was going to speak again — it's difficult to tell the story over and over again. It seems every time I tell it, it changes a little bit. But it's because I'm learning to get my voice back. I'm learning to tell and share what impact that had on me to lose a sister like that.

On why it's important for First Nations people to share their stories

People gathered on Parliament Hill in November in a solemn ceremony in memory of missing, murdered and abused aboriginal women and children. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

Being a First Nations person and growing up like that, we do seem kind of stoic in some way. We don't really protest and complain too much and so we don't share like we should.

In my own past, I was a tough Mohawk woman and I could handle everything —no one saw that soft side of me, that injured side that was afraid, and stood back behind the crowd.

[The consultations are] a chance for me to share, not only my tears, but also my strength, and hope and belief that this inquiry is going to do something.

On sharing her sister's story

For 27 years, nobody talked about her — not even in my immediate family circles. [We thought] she was gone and we'll never know what really happened and so we have to move forward.

It wasn't until I came out to one of the gatherings in Quebec that I finally showed that side of me that I showed no one, including my husband who I've been married to for 31 years.

There's a healing in that.

On what it was like to meet the federal ministers

Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett and Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould, along with Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly, met with family members and loved ones of missing and murdered indigenous women in Montreal on Jan. 22 (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

I knew Jody Wilson-Raybould, [but] I didn't know the other ones. They were just like any other woman I've met who is caring, loving and attentive — and then I find out they're ministers.

We're hugging each other, we are creating this kind of family, and for the first time, I have a sense of belonging, that my suffering was not for nothing, that I will help others to get to that point.

On how optimistic she is about the inquiry

Our women, and even our men now, we're finding their bodies and there's no one held responsible for that.

Will it ever give me answers I've been searching for? Maybe not. But knowing that we're going to save lives and give hope and healing, it's going to be worth it for that.

We need to get to know each other, First Nations and Canadians. We're in this country together and I think some kind of bonding, connection is going to take place.

This story has been condensed and edited for length and clarity