Missing and murdered indigenous women remembered in Thunder Bay

Families of missing and murdered indigenous women, from across the province have gathered in Thunder Bay for a three day conference.

Chiefs of Ontario host conference in Thunder Bay to allow grieving families to share their stories

Alex Cywink (l), Aileen Joseph (centre) and Maggie Cywink are sharing their stories at a three-day conference in Thunder Bay examining the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. (Cathy Alex/CBC)

Families of missing and murdered indigenous women, from across the province have gathered in Thunder Bay for a three day conference.

They're sharing their stories of love and grief as part of a planning session organized by the Chiefs of Ontario.

Aileen Joseph, of Six Nations in southern Ontario, said she wanted to attend the conference to make sure her daughter Shelley, who was murdered in 2004, will never be forgotten.

"Something you don't ever get over"

"Over the years, we get many comments about what has happened. They tell you, you have to get over it. But it's something you don't ever get over. It's always there," she said. 

Deputy Grand Chief Denise Stonefish, with the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, chairs the Chiefs of Ontario women's caucus. She told the families how important it is to hear the experiences of people like Joseph.
Deputy Grand Chief Denise Stonefish of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, chairs the First Nations Women's Caucus for the Chiefs of Ontario. (Cathy Alex/CBC)

"Our responsibility is to listen and observe your stories. To keep these stories with us. And as First Nations leadership to respectfully incorporate this knowledge into our advocacy efforts."

Stonefish said the chiefs are advocating for a federal inquiry into the issue of violence against aboriginal women. However she said since the government does not seem willing to approve that suggestion, First Nations leaders are proposing to hold their own inquiry.

But a woman from Whitefish River First Nation, also known as Birch Island, on Manitoulin Island, said she doesn't believe an inquiry, regardless of who leads it, will be enough to solve the problem.

Maggie Cywink's 31-year old sister Sonya was murdered in 1994. Her body was discovered 65 kilometres from where she was last seen.

"Standing up against violence against women"

Cywink said her sister never recovered from a trauma she suffered early in her life, which lead to a teenage pregnancy, dropping out of high school, drug abuse and then working in the sex trade. Cywink said it's unresolved issues, like what her sister was trying to deal with, that often make aboriginal women a vulnerable target. She said that's why change must start from the ground up.

Cywink said that First Nations leaders and communities should also play a role in ending the violence.

"We cannot force anyone, including the government to care about an inquiry until our people come forward, make a stand among ourselves and show the world that we're standing up against violence against women."

Cywink said she'd like to see communities set up violence prevention programs and offer more support to both young women, and young men.

"It gives hope"

Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy said he appreciates the pain of many of the people at the gathering. His only son was killed in 2004.
Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy hopes the families of missing and murdered women will take some comfort from the planning session in Thunder Bay. (Cathy Alex/CBC)

"I think when somebody loses a loved one, the greatest fear is that that loved one will be forgotten. I think having this exercise gives hope to the families, and also to the communities and to our nations that finally we will do something to maintain their memories but also to seek the truth."