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Dissecting a dark Indigenous past

Her worth and identity have always been under the microscope, but now Canada's first Indigenous forensic pathologist is facing even more pressure from her own community. Dr. Kona Williams is confronting some of the most sensitive autopsy cases around - the missing and murdered Indigenous women.
(Aiken Lao )

[WARNING: THE SUBJECT MATTER OF THIS EPISODE CONTAINS SCENES OF GRAPHIC VIOLENCE]

Her worth and identity have always been under the microscope, but now Canada's first Indigenous forensic pathologist is facing even more pressure from her own community. Just over a year into her job, Dr. Kona Williams is confronting some of the most sensitive autopsy cases around - the missing and murdered Indigenous women.

As a First Nations woman, I know that, even now, I'm still at risk of dying early, of being murdered, of going missing. And when I see some of those women come across, you know, in my life, and they've unfortunately, they've died… We're really not that different. I could have easily ended up like some of the people that come across my table.

Growing up, even though Kona's racial identity would continuously be questioned throughout school, her grades never wavered. She excelled academically, and especially loved science. It eventually led her to a gruelling application process to try and get into medical school, where her credentials, worth and identity would yet again, be dissected. Hear the story of how Kona earned her place in the cutthroat world of medical school, and went on to reconnect with her Indigenous past through the work of pathology. 

THE OUTSIDER

Kona never imagined she'd be spending her career in a morgue. Growing up, she had more of a fascination with living things. She loved spending time outdoors, exploring and learning about anything that involved nature.

I wondered why nobody seemed to know what we were. And how come I was the only one? How come we're only learning about this as though it's ancient history, but I'm alive and I'm here?

"I would be the little girl that would be out in the middle of a swamp in my nice church clothes collecting bugs and tadpoles. But I brought them home and I was able to watch them grow. And I would have my little notebook, and I'd be drawing all the stages in which one's got legs first, and tails first," Kona remembers.

It's no surprise that Kona excelled in school as a kid, learning came naturally to her. But despite her smarts, school wasn't always easy. Her dad had a government job that took him across Canada, so Kona and her family moved from home to home. She was always the new kid. And as an Indigenous Canadian, she was also always the outsider.
Kona, seen here at two years old (Courtesy of Kona Williams)
With the exception of "Indian Day" at school, Kona often questioned why nobody really knew or understood where she came from. "How come we're only learning about this as though it's ancient history, but I'm alive and I'm here," she wondered.

But at home, Kona's father kept her grounded. He instilled in her a deep appreciation for their Indigenous heritage. He told her about his past growing up, when he attended Birtle residential school in Manitoba.

For more than a hundred years, the Canadian government took countless Indigenous children away from their families and forced them into residential schools. The mandate was clear - assimilate First Nations people into mainstream Canadian society. Or as one government official put it -- "drive the Indian out of the child." Many of the students were isolated, abused, and given the lowest of basic human needs. The last residential school closed in 1996. It's just one of many dark chapters in the history of Indigenous people in Canada.

Rear view of Birtle Indian Residential School, May 2011 (Matea Tuhtar)
A class in penmanship at the Red Deer Indian Industrial School, Red Deer, Alberta, 1914 or 1919. (United Church of Canada, Archives)

OKA CRISIS

And it wasn't long before Kona would personally experience a dark chapter in Canada's history with First Nations people. In 1990, when Kona was just a young girl, her family was caught in the middle of the Oka crisis - a violent land dispute between the town of Oka, and a group of Mohawk people.

I remember watching people with guns strapped to their backs walking up and down the streets. And that's something I never seen before.

The town of Oka had plans to expand a golf course and residential area onto land which had traditionally been used by the Mohawk people. "I remember watching people with guns strapped to their backs walking up and down the streets. And that's something I never seen before," Kona said.

In the midst of tense conflict, Kona and her family escaped danger by crossing the St. Lawrence Seaway, and ended up in Montreal. From there, Kona's mother insisted that Kona hide in the bushes while she went into a nearby car rental shop. "She put her hand out and she made me put my hand out and she said, 'Look at the difference.' And I could see my hand was a lot darker than hers. And I remember that was the first time I ever felt really bad about the color of my skin," Kona recalls.

• UNRESERVED | Reflections of Oka: stories of the Mohawk standoff 25 years later

That was the first time Kona truly understood the gravity of what it meant to be Indigenous. It's something that she'd have to confront over and over again in life - as a child, in high school, and even on campus, during the gruelling, and fiercely competitive interview process of getting into medical school.

The Oka Crisis began on July 11, 1990, and lasted 78 days until September 26, 1990. (CBC Archives )

MEDICAL SCHOOL

Before her first med school interview, Kona nervously sat in the waiting room for her name to be called. She tried making friendly conversation with two other candidates sitting beside her. "One of the girls looks at me and says, 'Hmph, she's an Indian. Well, we know how you got here.' And the other one says, 'You check the box - you don't deserve to be here. You must have taken a spot away from somebody who really deserved it,'" Kona remembers.

"One of the girls looks at me and says, 'Hmph, she's an Indian. Well, we know how you got here.' And the other one says, 'You check the box - you don't deserve to be here. You must have taken a spot away from somebody who really deserved it.'"

She later went into that interview questioning herself, wondering if she actually deserved a spot in medical school. And to make matters worse, Kona went through the same experience four more times. Her credentials, her worth, her identity -- all put under the microscope again and again. In the end, she received acceptance letters from all five of the medical schools she applied to.

And once Kona made her choice, it didn't take her long to figure where she truly belonged. She found her calling in forensic pathology, which involves finding out the cause of death by examining a corpse. It's only when medical or criminal cases turn cold that forensic pathologists are called in.

It's the type of work that certainly isn't for everyone. But for Kona, there was no doubt that she was taking the right career path. "It's a puzzle… And trying to put the pieces together to figure out what happened to that person? What they were doing? What caused their death? What kinds of injuries are these?"

After nine years at uOttawa, Dr. Kona Williams did a one-year fellowship in forensic pathology at the University of Toronto, studying with Dr. Michael Pollanen, chief forensic pathologist for Ontario. She is pictured here, to the left, with other fellowship students. (Courtesy of Kona Williams)

MISSING AND MURDERED INDIGENOUS WOMEN

After graduating from medical school and finding a job, she made history by becoming Canada's first Indigenous forensic pathologist. But she quickly learned that the distinction came with a huge responsibility -- she'd personally be working on autopsy cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women.

I can tell by looking at the body, I can tell people what kind of injuries they have, what kind of diseases they have. I can tell what types of drugs they were on. I can't tell them who they were with. I can't tell them how that person was feeling at the time.
For decades, Indigenous women in Canada have gone missing or have been murdered at an alarming rate. Right now, the country is facing over a thousand cases, many of which remain unsolved. It's an ongoing national human rights crisis. And it's left the Indigenous community, saddened, frustrated, and determined to find answers.
Kona, seen on the right, graduating from medical school with her mentor, Dr. Mary Senterman, who inspired her to become a pathologist.

"I can tell by looking at the body, I can tell people what kind of injuries they have, what kind of diseases they have. I can tell what types of drugs they were on. I can't tell them who they were with. I can't tell them how that person was feeling at the time," Kona said.

Although it saddens Kona that she can't provide all the answers for many of the families that are suffering, she continues to try and do her part. Along the way, she's also learned that everything that's happened to her family, her ancestors and the entire Indigenous community over the years has helped her get to this point in life. It's something she doesn't take for granted. "Now it's up to me to carry that forward, and never forgetting everything that happened in my family and to Indigenous people across this country, but bringing it forward, and bringing it to light, and hopefully making some changes for the better."


EXTRA | Campus chats with CBC investigative reporter Connie Walker about dedicating her career to her Indigenous community, and the pressure and responsibility that comes with it.


CBC NEWS INVESTIGATES | In 1989, 24-year-old Alberta Williams was found dead along the Highway of Tears near Prince Rupert, B.C. Police never caught her killer. Twenty-seven years later, her unsolved murder continues to haunt her family — and the retired cop who says he knows who did it. Hear the full story in an eight-part series - Missing and Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams?

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