Lorelei Williams carries family story of missing and murdered indigenous women

For Lorelei Williams, this story began before she was born, when her aunt, Belinda Williams, went missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside 40 years ago.

#MMIW: First Nations woman grew up with ugly reality of what has become an international hashtag

Indigenous advocate Lorelei Williams and Minister Carolyn Bennett met for the first time in Vancouver at meetings where families of missing and murdered indigenous women were consulted about planning the national inquiry. (CBC/Andrew Friesen)

For Lorelei Williams, this story began before she was born, when her aunt, Belinda Williams, went missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside 40 years ago.

As a 35-year-old woman with roots in both the Skatin and Sts'ailes First Nations, Williams says she was brought into this world with the ugly reality of what has now become an international hashtag: #MMIW.  

Williams also lost her young cousin, Tanya Holyk. She went missing in 1996 and was later named as one of Robert Pickton's victims.

Helping design the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women was an unexpected turn in Williams' life, one that DNTO producer Andrew Friesen and I are capturing in a new CBC Doc Project and DNTO documentary called The Story She Carries.

'Mistakes were made'

For us, Williams story began at the Winnipeg airport, when I spotted Wally Oppal, the commissioner of the Missing Women's Commission of Inquiry (MWCI) that looked into the murders committed by serial killer Robert Pickton.

In indigenous country, Oppal has acquired somewhat of a pejorative reputation for spearheading what is considered a largely flawed inquiry. But my interview with him cast a different light on the former judge.

Doc-maker and CBC journalist Angela Sterritt interviews Wally Oppal in the Winnipeg airport. (Andrew Friesen/CBC )

Catching my breath after chasing Oppal down at the Vancouver airport, I asked him what he thought of the national inquiry moving forward and how it might be different from the MWCI.

"There were a lot of mistakes made when they didn't fund a lot of the [family and advocacy] groups. We could have learned a lot from those groups if they participated, so I am sympathetic to the groups that walked away."

Later on when I played this tape for Lorelei, she was surprised at what, to her, sounded like someone whose ideas about the inquiry matched hers.

"I'm shocked, everything I am pointing out in my speech [to the Ministers], he said as well. He admitted, 'Don't do the same mistakes that we did.'"

"To hear it coming from his mouth, I always thought, he doesn't get it or realize what we are going through, but it sounds like he does." said Williams.

Preparing for a national inquiry

The week we set aside to tape our documentary also happened to be the week cabinet ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould, Carolyn Bennett and Patty Hajdu met with families of missing and murdered indigenous women to consult on the plan and design for the national inquiry.

We captured the moment Williams and Bennett met for the first time.

Carolyn Bennett and Lorelei Williams meet for the first time outside a pre-inquiry meeting in Vancouver. CBC producer Andrew Friesen captures the moment. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

Wearing a T-shirt featuring photos of her missing aunt, Belinda Williams and cousin, Tanya Holyk, Williams told Bennett she was hopeful a national inquiry will help bring closure to her family.

"I feel emotional, I can't believe this is actually happening," said Williams — who reiterated the importance of having family members be a part of the upcoming inquiry.

Bennett agreed. "Lorelei, we're going to need your help to get it right. We know that it's only with the instincts, advice and stories of people like you that we will make sure there will be concrete actions taken."

As Bennett and Williams went upstairs to meet with the coalition, the minister told us that a national inquiry is only the beginning of a very long process.

"We have the responsibility to get on and do the work to make sure that concrete actions are put in place, so that other families don't go through what these families have," said Bennett.

At every meeting, we listened to family members retell difficult stories, For Williams, it means carrying the burden of telling her family members' stories, opening old wounds again and again.

Brushing off the pain

One of the questions Andrew and I asked each other over and over was, 'How does Lorelei do it?' How does she carry so many stories of death and loss and continue to share her story and other story as a fearless leader? Her answer to us was "It's always about connecting to culture and to spirit."

Seis^^lom (Glen Williams) performs a traditional brushing-off ceremony with Lorelei Williams. (Andrew Friesen/CBC)

Williams started a group called Butterflies in Spirit, a dance troupe comprised of family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women, to draw attention to the issue. But she was surprised to find that it gave her something back personally as well.

"Ever since I started Butterflies in Spirit, ever since I started working in the Downtown Eastside and meeting all these elders … I realized, wow, my culture is what is going to help me through all of this."

She began exploring her culture, reaching out to spiritual and cultural leaders and connecting to her Skatin and Sts'ailes communities and her Salish, Interior Salish and Coast Salish cultures.

Seis^^lom (Glen Williams) was one of the elders she reached out to. During one of this week's ministerial meetings to prep the family members for the pre-inquiry consultation, he was on site, conducting healing ceremonies for those carrying pain.

We witnessed and participated in a traditional Lil'wat brushing-off ceremony. The purpose of the practice is to brush off the negativity absorbed over the course of the day — listening to stories, taking in and experiencing emotions captured in the busy and powerful work that Williams embraces daily.

The pain and suffering many of the families have endured cannot be overstated. Andrew and I listened to heartbreaking stories of survival and loss but also of resilience and courage.

It is hard for me to imagine what many of the family members go through daily.

Tune in to our documentary to hear more, tune in to  DNTO , 3:00 p.m, Feb. 6, CBC Radio One.

Follow  @angelasterritt and @teamDNTO