'A lot of mixed emotions': MMIWG inquiry to begin hearings in Thunder Bay
The Dec. 4-6 hearings are expected to hear from about 50 family members and survivors
The national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is set to begin three days of hearings in Thunder Bay, Ont., and one longtime advocate says she's going into them with a lot on her mind.
"I have a lot of mixed emotions," Sharon Johnson said. "I was coming downtown today … [and] I just had a moment there to think about it and I got really emotional."
Johnson's sister, Sandra, was found dead in 1992 on a frozen, man-made floodway in Thunder Bay's east end when she was 18. Her case was deemed a homicide by Thunder Bay police but has not been solved.
For years, Johnson has organized memory walks in the northwestern Ontario city to honour her sister and other missing and murdered Indigenous women as well as to draw attention to the issue.
The inquiry is tasked with examining systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls and memorializing the victims, estimated to be in the thousands.
Thunder Bay's community hearings are scheduled from Dec. 4–6 at the NorWester Hotel & Conference Centre on Highway 61, with opening ceremonies held on Sunday. Hearings have already taken place in Yukon, British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec.
The hearings in Thunder Bay are the only ones scheduled across northern Ontario, something that the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), a territorial organization that represents 49 First Nations in the region, is trying to change.
"We have been advocating to have hearings held in other parts of our territory, whether it was in Moosonee or Timmins or Sioux Lookout. We have been advocating for that," said Anna Betty Achneepineskum, a deputy grand chief with NAN. "We hope that that will happen."
The issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls is one that all Canadians need to be educated about, she added.
"That's what I'm calling our citizens to do: no matter who you are, no matter what colour your skin is, we need to address this together and to stop this."
Many Nishnawbe families not participating
In Thunder Bay, commissioners are expected to hear from about 50 family members and survivors through public and private hearings, sharing circle testimonies and artistic expression panels, according to a written release from the inquiry. Staff will also be on-hand to take statements from people on a walk-in basis.
While the Nishnawbe Aski Nation supports the inquiry, Achneepineskum said many families from communities in its territory are choosing not to participate.
"That is their choice and their right to do so," she said. "[We'll] support those families and continue to advocate for resources and programs and prevention and opportunities to have their stories heard."
Johnson has supported the inquiry and has been a member of its National Family Advisory Circle — a coalition of family members who, as volunteers, have been advising people in charge of the inquiry. However, she said the whole process up to this point has taken a toll.
"There was a time there, maybe a couple months back when I didn't want to have anything to do with it. It was just one of those days I think where I was just totally stressed out," she said, adding those thoughts lasted about a week.
Johnson said the loss of her mother earlier this year also made things more difficult.
"She was always there to support everything I did and … she was always the first one I went to when something came up."
Going into the three days of testimony in Thunder Bay, Johnson said she's been doing her best to stay mentally and emotionally healthy.
"I've just been really balancing things out and really taking the time to look after myself and take care of myself," she said. "I know that if I don't, if I let things build up … I'm not going to be any good to anyone, so I really take that time to look after myself."
Native women's association to provide support
Ahead of the inquiry hearings in Thunder Bay, the Ontario Native Women's Association (ONWA) announced it will be available to help survivors and family members.
"I hope that survivors and family members who have gathered in Thunder Bay to participate in the national inquiry feel welcome and supported," ONWA's president Dawn Harvard said in a written release.
"The Ontario Native Women's Association has been working in partnership with service providers to provide supports to survivors and family members in Thunder Bay [whether] they choose to testify during the community hearing or not."
Achneepineskum said NAN will also have support workers on-hand.
"Over the past weeks service providers from Thunder Bay have been organizing support for survivors and family members," Harvard wrote in an open letter in advance of the inquiry's Thunder Bay stop. "We have been working in partnership to provide support before, during and after the community hearing."
Johnson said she will also try and help people throughout the process, the way others have supported her and her family.
"I'll do what I can to be there for the families and for the people that approach me and ask me for help," she said.
"It's something that I'd like to give back to somebody else."
With files from Superior Morning