Thunder Bay

Audrey's Story examines justice for MMIWG through an Anishinaabe lens

In the documentary Audrey’s Story, Jolene Banning shows the labour and the heartache that went into discovering how provincial police failed to properly investigate the death of her aunt.

Short film about Audrey Anderson's 1972 death in Sioux Lookout, Ont. opens ImagineNATIVE filmfest

In the documentary, Audrey's Story, Anishinaabe storyteller Jolene Banning shows the hard work and the heartache she experienced while seeking the truth about her aunt, Audrey Anderson, who was killed near Sioux Lookout in 1972. (Sean Stiller/Audrey's Story)

Indigenous people are doing more than their share of the work needed to uncover the true history of Canada and the racial injustice at its core, according to Anishinaabe storyteller Jolene Banning.

In the documentary, Audrey's Story, Banning shows the labour and the heartache that went into discovering how provincial police failed to properly investigate the death of her aunt.

"For me to have Audrey's story out there is a truth, a truth for my family," Banning said. "What I hope comes of this is that other people try to learn the truth, as well."

Audrey Anderson was a teenager who dreamed of becoming a nurse and buying a house big enough to share with all of her siblings. She was killed in 1972 near Sioux Lookout, Ont. For more than 40 years, Anderson's death was classified as an accident. In 2018, in response to the family's advocacy, police reopened the investigation.

This photo of Audrey Anderson, 19, (left) along with her younger sister Norma was taken just a few weeks before Audrey died in 1972. (OPP)

Audrey's Story opens the ImagineNATIVE Film Festival on Tuesday night and shines a compassionate light on the difficult path Audrey's family traveled to achieve that measure of justice. 

"They say that justice is blind, but when it comes to Indigenous people, there is no justice for us and I hope that that comes across," Banning said. "And I hope other Indigenous families see this film and realize that there is a resource for them to get their family answers."

Help for families of MMIWG

That resource is Ontario's Family Information Liaison Unit (FILU), created within the Ministry of the Attorney General. It is staffed by Indigenous community members who help families of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls access court documents, police investigations and coroner's reports. It also provides cultural support as families cope with what those documents reveal.

The film's director, Michelle Derosier, also had experience with the liaison unit before making Audrey's Story. A liaison worker helped Derosier look into the 1976 death of her own grandmother, near Dryden, Ont.

"I think about other families that they might find the courage, if they so wish, to ask questions and to know that they have a right to ask questions and they have a right to answers about what happened to their loved ones," she said. "It doesn't matter when, a lot of the cases are 30, 40, 50 years old or even older.That's such a long time of not knowing."

"Not knowing truths is very damaging, not only for Indigenous people but non-Indigenous people too," Derosier added. "We're starting to see that now, with Indigenous people and Black people and our relationship with the state, the police state. There's something very wrong."

In the film, the coroner and the police admit that racism played a role in their faulty initial investigations and false conclusions about the manner of Anderson's death. The investigation remains open and no one has ever been charged.

Banning sees a connection between what happened to her aunt and current events involving police and Indigenous peoples.

"It's us and them. Just take a look at what's happening in Nova Scotia right now with the Mi'kmaq and lobster fishing … and RCMP are standing by and just watching," she said. "How is that justice? How are we being protected? 

"This is our constitutional right to be on this land, to live on this land," Banning said. "And here's my aunt just trying to grow and thrive, at 19 years old, and she's taken, brutally and my family is left with no acknowledgement of their pain, no acknowledgement of the loss of their daughter, being treated like garbage."

Another path to justice

For now, there is a sense of justice in the police and coroner admitting they were wrong and acknowledging the pain they caused, Banning said. 

In the film, Derosier also puts the focus on another way forward.

"When I started to talk to Jolene's family about Audrey, one of the first things that struck me was that she loved the land, [Audrey] had a relationship with the land and almost 50 years later, I see Jolene and she's nurturing that relationship," Derosier said as the two visited a lake at Fort William First Nation, just before the film's premier.

"So those things are part of our justice, that's part of how we are going to move forward," Derosier said. "That incredible power and love and sense of place that both Audrey and Jolene had and still have. That's it."

Then Banning flips the lens back to those who may be watching the film.

"Indigenous people are trying so hard, we're always learning the truth of our history, the truth of where we come from and how it came to be and I think it's about time the other side learned the truth as well," she said.

"It can't always be us learning and then teaching and then being denied that. I mean every inquiry we have, every report we have, we already know the truth. But the other side, the settlers, are refusing, or not wanting to learn," she added.

"I think that needs to change because this is all of our truths. This is Canada."