First Nations therapist reflects on 20 years helping MMIWG families

Kim McKay-McNabb, who is a First Nations therapist, is speaking at the We Rise conference this week. It's organized by the Women's Secretariat of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations. Speakers will discuss racism, MMIWG and an action plan for change.

Kim McKay-McNabb and others will discuss racism, MMIWG and action plan for change at We Rise conference

Kim McKay-McNabb counsels family members of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Saskatchewan. (Submitted by Kim McKay-McNabb)

Behind every headline of a missing or murdered Indigenous woman is a grieving family, and sometimes Kim McKay-McNabb is there too.

McKay-McNabb has spent the last 20 years counselling family members of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Saskatchewan.

"When any human loses a life in a family, that's very heavy, intense and a trauma," said McKay-McNabb, who is a First Nations therapist in Fort Qu'Appelle, Sask., and currently the executive director of the White Raven Healing Centre.

She said some people will not make it through that trauma. In those 20 years, McKay-McNabb has seen siblings and children of women who were murdered — or are missing still — grow up.

"These children have been woken up in the middle of the night and told their loved one has been murdered. These children carry that trauma and it's a lifelong process."

McKay-McNabb said she doesn't usually use the word "closure" in her practice, because the pain never goes away. She said some people just find a way to deal with it and live a life alongside trauma, constantly in recovery. Others are not so lucky.

"It has allowed me to see these children grow into young men and women. Some of them are stuck in the trauma and avoidance. It can get so toxic, they might use alcohol and drugs to not relive that," she said.

"If you don't [learn to live with the trauma], some of those individuals lose their lives, too."

But she said some of the children she has counselled learn about helping professions and grow up to be helpers.

"Family members who have someone who is missing or murdered — it's an individualized experience. Each one of them is going through a different journey of loss."

Compelled to speak out

McKay-McNabb said the families she works with have compelled her to start talking about the lifetime toll the violence and death has on them.

She is speaking at the We Rise conference, which takes place March 24-26. It is organized by the Women's Secretariat of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations. Speakers will discuss racism, MMIWG, and an action plan for change.

She said for many of the families, the court process does not equate to justice. She has watched as families are retraumatized at every stage. She hopes that can change.

"We want the community to know what our women were, not just how they were taken."

She said what helps is talking about the lost family member and sharing memories. The best part of her job is when she sees healing happen and her clients are in a place of recovery.

She said the trauma and pain can be managed, but will never end.

"It's always going to hurt. You're always going to be the mom whose daughter went missing."

Hope more people become therapists

While this line of work is not easy, McKay-McNabb said she does a lot to stay healthy so she can keep helping families.

Traditional beading keeps her grounded. She does yoga and goes for walks. When she climbs the Lebret Hill, she thinks about her family who went to residential school in Lebret.

She also feels as though she was destined for this kind of work. Even as a child, she said she was always listening, and her experiences growing up help her understand the families.

She spent time in foster care. She kept running away and was put into Dale's House, a home for troubled youth. The struggle didn't end there.

"Not only was I in foster care, for a time, I was homeless."

She was a teen mom, and at one point, homeless living with her baby in a car while she attended high school.

When she started taking psychology classes, she said everything clicked and she found a way she could help people.

McKay-McNabb said those lived experiences help inform her work helping the families deal with trauma.

She said she is one of a few therapists using a combination of mainstream psychology and Indigenous healing practices. She hopes that by sharing her story, more therapists will be called to work with the families of murdered and missing Indigenous women.

"It's too much for one clinician to carry."


Amanda Marcotte


Amanda Marcotte is a journalist with CBC Saskatchewan.