'I want to be an example': Phoebe Sutherland on finding strength after aunt's murder

Phoebe Sutherland is still trying to come to terms with her aunt's death after Jane Louise Sutherland, 19, was killed in 1984 after she left the remote James Bay community of Moose Factory in northern Ontario to attend school in Ottawa.

National Inquiry into MMIWG is working with Gatineau Police to revisit 1984 case of Jane Louise Sutherland

Phoebe Sutherland, 44, wears a red dress in Moose Factory, Ont., to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Her aunt Jane Louise Sutherland was 19-years-old when she was killed in Hull, Quebec. The case remains unresolved. (Ocean Hardisty/Supplied)
Phoebe Sutherland flips through the pages of books in the public library of Timmins, Ont.

"I love the smell," she said. 

Literature has held a special place in Sutherland's heart ever since her aunt Jane Louise read out loud to her.

"I would just be like in awe of her," Sutherland said. 

"She would read to me and I would read to her."

Sutherland, who is now 44, was eight years younger than Jane Louise. 

They grew up together in the remote James Bay community of Moose Factory in northern Ontario. 

Sutherland considered her aunt a role model. 

She remembers Jane Louise's black hair, beautiful skin and warmth. 

"She had a really great, soulful, boisterous, high-pitched laugh that was infectious," Sutherland said.

"She was strong, but I think she carried the scars of residential school."

'11-year-old shouldn't have to struggle to understand'

Jane Louise was one of the youngest children from her family to attend residential school in Moose Factory, according to Sutherland. 

When she turned 17, Jane Louise left the north in 1982 to finish high school in Ottawa.

She was found dead two years later in Jacques Cartier Park within one kilometre of Parliament Hill in Hull, Quebec. 

Jane Louise had been strangled and her skull crushed.

Her funeral was a closed casket because her injuries were so severe. 

"Those are things that an 11-year-old shouldn't have to struggle to understand," Sutherland said.

"It's been difficult."

Sutherland was in Grade 6 at the time of her aunt's death.

She said she got the news after her dad was called to the office during an open house night at school. 

Sutherland said she is upset that Jane Louise was labelled a sex trade worker in the media. 

"No one wants to grow up to survive that way," Sutherland said.

"Maybe that's how she was trying to survive up to the point where that's the only way she could survive."

Police collaborating with national inquiry on case

Jane Louise was 19 when she killed in October 1984, but there have not been any arrests made in realtion to her murder.  

Thirty-three years later, Sutherland is still trying to comprehend what happened to her aunt. 

"I think it's given me compassion," Sutherland said.

"I think sometimes my heart breaks a bit when I see another missing and murdered woman or girl or man or boy."

Gatineau Police have taken over the investigation into Jane Louise's murder from Hull Police. 

They reopened the case in 2013 to try to find new evidence that could lead to an arrest, but then closed it in April 2014, according to spokesperson Mariane Leduc.

No one from Gatineau Police would have a recorded interview with CBC News because Leduc said they are collaborating with the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls on the case.

Sutherland said she wants to testify at the inquiry to tell her aunt's story.

"The pain that our generation still holds — I want to be able to speak to that and find healing for myself," Sutherland said. 

"I want to be an example to my nephew and nieces. I want to help educate either Canadians or anybody who would take the time to understand those issues and to be part of the solution."

'She helped me become a good aunt'

Sutherland is also making film about her journey to find healing from her aunt's death. 

"Even though she was silenced and her life had ended, she taught me to speak with a voice," Sutherland said.

"I don't want her life to be defined by how it ended."

Sutherland said Jane Louise was the first person she told that she wanted to make movies. Her first film was about grief. 

During her 20s, Sutherland said she used to write and burn letters to her aunt to thank her, and tell her she loves and misses her.

"It's just like a correspondence with heaven," Sutherland said.

"In ways, I feel guided by her."

Sutherland is still looking for peace, but she said she has become a stronger person.

Jane Louise lives on in Sutherland's memories. She said she thinks about her aunt every day, and passes on her recollections to her nieces and nephews

"It's amazing to be able to share a bit of who she was with people who never knew her," Sutherland said.

"I'm very proud to be their aunt because she was such a good aunt, so I feel like she helped me become a good aunt in that way."

Tune into CBC Sudbury's Morning North at 7:20 a.m. ET during the week of October 23 to hear a new series called Unresolved, about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls from northeastern Ontario. Listen live here.

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: