Indigenous

'Sorrowful but essential': 1st families speak at MMIWG hearings in Whitehorse

The long-awaited first public hearings for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls got underway in Whitehorse, under a tent on the banks of the Yukon River.

Hearings run in Whitehorse until Thursday

Frances Neumann is greeted by Chief Commissioner Marion Buller as the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls got underway in Whitehorse, under a tent on the banks of the Yukon River. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The long-awaited first public hearings for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls got underway in Whitehorse Monday, under a tent on the banks of the Yukon River.

The five commissioners of the inquiry started the hearings, which run until Thursday, seated in a semi-circle in an enclosed section of the tent — the walls lined with quilts sewn by volunteers in Saskatoon.

"Today is turning point in our national history," said Marion Buller, the inquiry's chief commissioner. "This is a sorrowful but essential part of our history,"

"There's going to be a lot of tears flowing in this process," said commissioner Marilyn Poitras.

'To give voice'

The first family to speak to the commissioners was that of Mary Johns, a Yukon woman who was found dead in Vancouver in 1982 — a victim of Gilbert Paul Jordan, the so-called Boozing Barber.

Frances Neumann wipes a tear as she speaks to commissioners at the first public hearings of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is holding in Whitehorse. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)
Johns' sister-in-law, Frances Neumann, detailed how the family searched Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for her and the effect her death had on many of them.

She also had a message for the commissioners.

"We must stand up for justice for these women that have walked before us," Neumann said. "To give voice that was taken away, so unjustly."

Criticism

Leading up to these public hearings, the inquiry had been under intense scrutiny, with many calling it disorganized and with poor communication.

Those criticisms continued even on the first day, with some questioning the format of the hearings.

Lorelei Williams, an advocate whose aunt, Belinda Williams, went missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside 40 years ago, was initially critical of the inquiry, but has recently had a change of heart.

"Actually being here in Whitehorse and witnessing this, I'm realizing, OK a lot of work is being done but it was the lack of communication that was making families upset and I'm starting to understand more, being up here," she told CBC News.

Hearings run until Thursday

Around a dozen families have already registered to speak at the hearings, though the commission is expecting to speak to many more.

The hearing room for the MMIWG Inquiry in Whitehorse. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)
Only media and commission staff are in the room when people give testimony. The public watches from a adjacent room on a large screen.

Those who don't want to speak publicly can meet with commissioners one-on-one in small cabins located beside the main hearing tent. There is also an option for people to give testimony over the phone, commission staff said.

This is the last time families can give testimony to the commission until the fall.

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