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Primacy within the Process

Family members of MMIWG have earned a central spot in the national inquiry process

by Delilah Saunders

At the recent 'Wiping Away the Tears' gathering in Winnipeg, Manitob, family members of MMIWG spoke of the need to be included in a national inquiry.
At the recent 'Wiping Away the Tears' gathering in Winnipeg, Manitob, family members of MMIWG spoke of the need to be included in a national inquiry.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) -- The hashtag #OurInquiry has been circulating on social media among the families and allies of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. The campaign was started by Bernadette Smith, the sister of Claudette Osborne, 21, who went missing from Winnipeg in 2008, along with other family members of victims in Manitoba. The aim is to make sure that the inquiry due to start in the summer of 2016 is led primarily by the families of the nearly 1,900 known missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

It only seems logical that survivors and families should be at the forefront in regards to a national public inquiry. After all, they have had to lay ground work in creating the momentum for a national inquiry. In their search for answers and justice, survivors and families have exposed rampant and systemic abuses of power, negligence, and ambivalence which are structured into settler colonial societies.

Smith, along with Kyle Kematch— whose sister Amber Guiboche, from Winnipeg, has been missing since 2010— joined forces. Along with a team of dedicated volunteers, the two have helped to organize the 'Drag the Red' campaign.

Here “Drag” is a reference to dredging—a process whereby hooks and nets are used to bring the bottom of a river or lake to the surface, while The “Red” is a reference to the Red River which runs through the city of Winnipeg. Despite being a labor of love, “drag[ing] the Red” is a horrific process which entails dredging the bottom of the Red River for the human remains of missing and murdered love ones. Since the 'Drag the Red' campaign has started, the infamy of the Red River as a site where murderers dispose of their evidence has only grown.

Despite campaigns and hashtags, thousands of family members of murdered and missing Indigenous women have been given the cold shoulder during the most distressing times of their lives. Given the relationship between the First Peoples and Canada, this is perhaps not surprising. Authorities have brushed off many disappearances, branding the women and girls as runaways, sex workers, drug users and other stigmatized social standings.

Rarely are these mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, and cousins portrayed as who they truly are. They are family members, community members, and most importantly - human. This has left families to search for answers on their own, sometimes hiring private investigators when police are not doing their jobs adequately. Such is the case for the families of Jennifer Catcheway, 18, and Simone Sanderson, 23, who have turned to crowd funding to pay for the costly services of private investigators. The incompetence of authorities in these cases has become a disturbing trend.

The provincial inquiry into the handling of such cases in regards to the deaths on Robert Pickton's farm in Coquitlam, British Columbia, showed how deeply society's most vulnerable people are neglected by those who are supposed to serve and protect. Lead by Wally Oppal, this inquiry also focused on the police's handling of interrogating and investigating Robert Pickton himself. The focus on Pickton entailed not investigating the increasing number of women going missing from the downtown Eastside of Vancouver, despite numerous tips and not carrying out a search warrant when the police were granted one.

Generations have been stolen and affected by this national crisis, and the state’s response leaves little wonder why. When asked about the mounting pressure for an inquiry in 2015, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper nonchalantly admitted that the issue was not "high on our [i.e. Conservatives’] radar." Harper’s priorities stood in stark contrast to those who supported a national inquiry—from concerned family and community members, to the United Nations and Amnesty International; however, the combined voices of surviving family members, advocates, organizations, allies, and general public dare to think, speak, and act otherwise.

The level of awareness on the issue today did not happen overnight. Families of the stolen women and girls have been struggling to have their voices heard for over thirty years. There is the possibility now, with a new federal government, that they will finally be heard.

The true experts on the issue are the family members themselves, as this sociological phenomenon has been largely ignored or unknown in the national community.

Special advisor, Nahanni Fontaine, has been working closely alongside family members to get justice and answers. I had the honour to meet her and the other organizers of the 'Wiping Away the Tears' gathering in Winnipeg in early September, 2015. This marked the sixth year of the gathering and while in the past families from Manitoba were the only attendees, for the first time Wiping Away the Tears hosted families from coast to coast to coast.

The gathering's focal point is to help families heal, connect, and share their stories with people who are going through the same experiences. Similarly, the gathering allows a space for brainstorming and voicing concerns about the National Inquiry and how it should be conducted.

Nahanni, along with family members, gathering attendees and volunteers assembled a dissemination to release publicly this week. Before this milestone moment, I was able to ask Fontaine why she feels a National Inquiry is important.

Fontaine noted:

"..[W]here we currently sit as a country in respect of the issue of MMIWG is literally born off the blood, sweat and tears of family members’ perseverance and resiliency. We simply would not be where we are at this particular moment in history if it were not for the love of MMIWG families for their stolen or murdered daughters, sisters, mothers, aunties, cousins, etc.

Additionally, we have to be cognizant of the very simple fact; a National Inquiry may potentially be the only official judicial recognition or response in respect of MMIWG’s families’ loved ones. For those MMIWG families who have loved ones still missing or loved ones who have been murdered without an individual(s) charged and sentenced, they have no sense of closure. A National Inquiry can potentially offer some sense of closure or justice by having their loved one recorded and noted on the official record – this may be their only opportunity for some type of recognition of their loved one.

Put together, MMIWG families have earned the right to primacy within any National Inquiry processes, and Canada owes them the respect and recognition of their efforts by honouring and implementing that primacy in a very serious and committed manner."

As Fontaine’s remarks show, the inquiry is likely to be the only official acknowledgement of their disappeared loved one by a system that has denied them the proper investigative and judicial processes.

Families of the stolen mothers, sisters, daughters, aunties and nieces have been struggling to have their voices heard for over thirty years. While various voices have joined the choir, the lengths taken to ignore them have grown in myriad ways. Nevertheless, the families have and continue to persist. Families are finally starting to have their voices heard; however, hearing and heeding those voices are different paths altogether. In other words, if one recognizes that the true experts on the need for closure are the families themselves, then opting to expert opinion would force their conclusion: that a National Inquiry is an immediate necessity and they must be involved.


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