'Do no harm': Mental health support key as MMIW inquiry triggers painful past, families say

On the eve of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the issue of reawakening trauma and mental health support is on the minds of family members and commission staff alike.

Commission still setting up health team as advisory meetings underway

Shirley James, right, died in 1975 after being attacked in Winnipeg. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Cheryl James says the looming national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women is triggering painful memories.

James' mother and stepmother were killed at age 27 and 33, and her doctor recently told her she suffers from a type of depression common to women who have lost their mothers to violence.

"I have other friends who lost their moms and I see some similarities in some of their struggles," James said.

On the eve of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, family members and commission staff are concerned about reawakening trauma and making sure mental health support is available for those affected.

Cheryl James suffers from a type of depression her doctor said is common among women who have lost their mothers to violence. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)
James was 9 and living in foster care in Brandon when her mother, Shirley Ann Eliza James, was attacked by two women and knocked unconscious in front of a Main Street hotel in Winnipeg on March 22, 1975.

Her mother, who had been working with James' father to make a home for the whole family in Winnipeg, died the next day, leaving five children motherless.

James' stepmother, Noella Belanger, was severely beaten and dragged to the middle of the frozen Red River, a newspaper report from 1992 says.

I want to see what they have to offer for support. I haven't heard anything yet- Cheryl James

James has struggled with depression since her mother's death and she knows she must practice self care more than ever as the inquiry begins. She plans to attend inquiry hearings once they start.

"One thing I would say is for families is to find those people with positive supports in their lives and to go with them [to the hearings], and to reach out for those supports that are already in our community," she said.

She hopes the commission overseeing the inquiry will make Indigenous elders available for family members and provide mental health services with Indigenous ceremonies and perspectives.

"I want to see what they have to offer for support. I haven't heard anything yet."

Trauma-informed process

The commission will follow a trauma-informed process, its website says, which means it will use a legal fact-finding process designed to minimize revictimizing or retraumatizing family members as they retail their experiences.

The inquiry will provide health teams to help people such as James before, during and after hearings, said Susan Vella, the lead lawyer for the commission overseeing the inquiry, at a news conference last month.

The health team will be made up of a doctor, two managers of health and a number of health workers across the country, commission spokesperson Sue Montgomery said via email.

The commission is still figuring out the details about how the health team will work with families and survivors, but their motto is "do no harm," Montgomery said.

Once the health team is in place, information about it will be made available on its website, on social media and even on community radio, Montgomery said. A national, toll-free crisis line will be among the supports, she said.

Unresolved PTSD

Janet Smylie, a Métis family doctor based in Toronto, and Mag Cywink, whose sister was killed in London, Ont., in 1994, recently wrote an editorial for the Canadian Journal of Public Health calling on the public health community to work with Indigenous communities and organizations to make sure family members receive support during the inquiry.

"I worked in diverse communities and the system of care is very complex across the country, but even though my current practice is downtown Toronto, I have clients who can't access the services," Smylie said.

"We need to all really work and pull together to get the supports in place in cities, rural and remote areas."

It is likely a significant number of family members are experiencing unresolved post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic grief, Smylie said.

All family members should have access to treatments before community visits begin and before giving a testimony, she said.

James said she's concerned about the lack of information being given to family members about what support will be available from the commission.

"How are they going to be there for families? Are they going to be able to provide support to families the way the families want to be supported?" James said.

"I think that's the most important thing."

About the Author

Originally from Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation) located in northwestern Ontario, Martha Troian is an investigative journalist who frequently contributes to CBC News, including work on the multiple award-winning and ongoing Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls. Follow her @ozhibiiige