Indigenous·Reporter's Notebook

Angela Sterritt on telling the story of Ashley Machiskinic's death

CBC's Angela Sterritt explores how journalists balance truth with sensitivity when telling the stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Balancing truth, sensitivity presents a challenge in stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls

Ashley Machiskinic, 22, died in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside when she fell from a window on Regent Hotel's fifth floor on Sept. 15, 2010.

"When was the last time you spoke with your daughter?" I asked. 

It was about 3 p.m. on a Thursday in late June and I was in a busy alley in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver with a CBC camera operator.

Just a block from where we stood, Ashley Machiskinic plunged to her death from the fifth-floor window of the Regent Hotel in 2010.

She was only 22-years-old.

"This is so hard to talk about," said Machiskinic's mother, Cheryl Strongarm, who at the time went by the name Brenda.

I felt rattled from spending the last few days in that alley. And as I looked into Strongarm's eyes, a mother who lost a daughter so tragically, I wondered if asking her all these questions was the right thing to do.

In some ways, it seemed as if I was asking her to relive the trauma of losing a loved one all over again.

'Find out what happened to my daughter'

It's my job to chip into the truth, but I also didn't want to virtually rip off a scab and cause more pain and grief. The cliche "it's a delicate balancing act" rang through my head.

"Please find out what happened to my daughter. I know something happened that people are not talking about,"  Strongarm said to me in that alley. 

Strongarm — like advocates, neighbours and other family members — believes someone pushed her daughter out of the window of the Regent Hotel.

Former Vancouver Police Department constable Dave Dickson also thinks she was forced out of the window, possibly for not paying a drug debt.

Although Vancouver police have determined her death was not suspicious, retired constable Dave Dickson believes Ashley Machiskinic was forced out of a window. (Angela Sterritt)
"They get their heads shaved, they get beaten, they get sexually assaulted, actually for as little as a $30 or $40 drug debt," Dickson told me, pointing to where Machiskinic died on the concrete. 

In October of 2010, the Vancouver Police Board posted a $10,000 reward for information that proved "conclusively the circumstances surrounding Ashley's death." 

The reward expired in the fall of 2012, and after what it calls an exhaustive investigation, the Vancouver Police Department deemed her death not suspicious. 

As I stood in that alley, a man yelled down from the Regent Hotel and asked if we were doing a story about the 22-year-old Cree girl who may have been pushed out of the window.

He said he had information about how she died. Another man asked if it was OK to "fix" with a needle while we set up an interview. I nodded my head. It was easy to lose focus.

Grief, overwhelming sense of injustice

Mona Woodward walked up, solemn, with a bundle in her arms. She wore a black shirt with her cousin Ashley's name and picture on it. She laid out a blanket and lit some sage and began to pray. 

All was calm, until my cellphone rang. It was another family member, clearly angry and upset someone was speaking to the media on behalf of the family. They were at ease when I told them I had spoken to Ashley's mother, and now to her cousin.

In the aftermath of Ashley Machiskinic's death, cousin Mona Woodward went to the alley to lay down spiritual tobacco and smudge. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)
Woodward's eyes welled up and she choked back tears as she spoke about how much pain her family members were in and how much healing is needed to deal with the loss, the grief and the overwhelming sense of injustice.

Many, she said, do not feel taken seriously by police — or the media.

By many accounts, there's a lack of trust in the media for not covering these stories with rigour and sensitivity, if they're even covered at all.

One family member tells me, "It's just like some reporters twist the knife to try to get the tears out of you." 

Tough but necessary questions

Sometimes I do have to ask tough questions I loathe. For example, if a woman or girl was evading warrants at the time of her disappearance, as police may have suggested, I have to ask.

I hate asking those questions, but I have to or I won't be able to get at the truth.

What strikes me about this story, and so many others, is the bravery and generosity of Ashley's family — to speak the truth and to fight for answers regardless of the tremendous pain of loss they've experienced. 

At a recent awards gala, a friend in the audience mentioned I seemed to "go somewhere else" in my mind when accepting an investigative award with a CBC colleague.

And I did. My thoughts went to the families, and how this unimaginable situation of potentially thousands of  missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada seems to persist. Disappearances and murders have not subsided. 

As a journalist, I hope to tell fewer of these stories. But unfortunately, it is hard to envision that happening today.


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea?