Indigenous

Mohawk woman looks to MMIWG inquiry closing ceremony for healing

Cheryl McDonald, a Mohawk woman living in Kanesatake, Que., testified before the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in 2018 about her sister's death. The inquiry's closing ceremony takes place on June 3, and McDonald says being there will be an important step in her healing process.

'My heart tells me to get there,' says Cheryl McDonald

Cheryl McDonald plans to be in Ottawa on June 3 to witness the closing ceremony of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

For Cheryl McDonald, being at the closing ceremony for the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls will be an important step in her healing journey over the loss of her sister Carleen Marie McDonald.

"I'm going to have to be there. I can't stop now," said McDonald, a Mohawk living in Kanesatake, Que.

Her sister Carleen was 25 when she disappeared from their parent's home in Akwesasne, a Mohawk community near Cornwall, Ont., on Sept. 4, 1988.

The last photo taken of Carleen was in May of that year, before she got braces. She was wearing a bright red Mohawk Nation shirt.

Orthodontic records helped identify her remains when a body was found seven weeks later by a deer hunter in the woods in the community.

Carleen Marie McDonald was last seen on Sept. 4, 1988 in Akwesasne. She was later found dead in the woods. (Cheryl McDonald)

McDonald was the first public witness before the inquiry's Montreal hearings on March 18, 2018. The experience was "freeing" for her, she said, as she had previously stayed silent about her sister's story for nearly three decades.

"It was like emotionally throwing up and finally saying 'You know what? I'm not going be afraid to say my truth,'" she said.

"It was healing because I really felt that once I testified, I had left all those questions that swirled in my head and my heart for all of my life. I was able to release that, put it out there for the world to learn from it."

Attendance at closing ceremony not funded for families

The inquiry is set to present its final report on June 3 in Gatineau, Que., but CBC News released details of the report on Friday. It said the thousands of Indigenous women and girls who were murdered or disappeared across the country in recent decades were victims of a "Canadian genocide."

"We do know that thousands of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual) have been lost to the Canadian genocide to date," said the report, titled Reclaiming Power and Place.

McDonald has not been formally invited to attend the official release of the final report. She was told by a commissioner that if she wants to attend, she'll have to pay her own way.

"It makes me feel like I've always kind of felt, silently ignored," she said.

Watch: Cheryl McDonald on her plans to attend MMIWG inquiry closing ceremony

Cheryl McDonald testified at the MMIWG inquiry hearing in Montreal and says it was “freeing” for her. On June 3, she intends to attend the inquiry’s closing ceremony. 2:28

McDonald is not alone, according to vice-president of Quebec Native Women Mary Hannaburg. The association has been made aware of a few family members who are hoping to attend, but who do not have the financial means.

"I was really disheartened to hear that," said Hannaburg.

"It's a critical time to give some hope to families. Especially with government, I don't understand. They want to make reconciliation. Well, they should dig in their pockets so that families can be there. It's helping in their healing process."

Catherine Kloczkowski, a spokesperson for the inquiry, said they anticipate a large audience to fill the grand hall at the Canadian Museum of History and have planned additional overflow space as needed..

The event will be live-streamed on Facebook in English, French and Inuktitut. 

Cheryl McDonald shared her story of her sister's disappearance at hearings in Montreal for the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

"We heard from families across the country that they wanted to participate in some way, so in response the inquiry announced funding assistance for organizations to host community gatherings and events to further the healing of families and survivors of violence and to mark the occasion of the end of the national inquiry's mandate within their own communities," she said.

She said more than 100 organizations are holding community gatherings and events.

McDonald, who lives about 150 kilometres east of Gatineau, plans to make the drive to attend the closing ceremony.

"My heart tells me to get there," she said.

No more structural 'silos'

During her testimony, McDonald talked about her frustration dealing with the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service, which was in charge of the investigation into Carleen's disappearance. Now, she hopes the inquiry's final report won't be "'another report on a shelf."

"Structural changes have to happen so that these silos of health and social and policing and justice and housing and leadership are not all running these separate meetings and agendas," she said.

"Canadians and Indigenous people, leaders, professionals, regular citizens who are trying to understand what is all this pain about, what is all this anger about — it's about this deep injustice that is passed through each one of us." 

About the Author

Jessica Deer

Journalist

Jessica Deer is Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawake. A former staff reporter for the Eastern Door, she works in CBC's Indigenous unit based in Montreal. Email her at jessica.deer@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @Kanhehsiio.