As an Aboriginal Ministries Council member in The United Church of Canada, I am often asked to attend meetings or events that address issues important to Indigenous communities of faith. Recently, I attended the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in Edmonton. When I went there, I knew it would be difficult, but my partner, Charlene, and I wanted to be there to support our relatives. I knew I would have many emotions because this issue is so close to my heart. This is especially important for my partner because she had a sister, Phyllis, whose death was unexplained.

Arriving at the Inquiry

Considering this was a public inquiry the turnout was low. In hindsight, this might have been a blessing for families. We did recognize several non-Indigenous people from surrounding United Churches, particularly from the Living into Right Relations Network. We also saw too many lawyers. During that time, a family member of one of the missing women came up to me and asked, “What are you here for?” I said, “We are here to uplift you.” From then on we sat with him and listened to the families share their stories for the next three days. We became part of the family and we shared a lot of great jokes despite the pain and seriousness.

Listening to Stories

A woman share her testimony with a small group of people gathered around in chairs at the MMIWG inquiry in Edmonton.
While holding an eagle feather, this lady is telling the story of Shelly Desjarlais who has been missing since 2013.
Credit: 
Charlene Burns

I listened to many gut-wrenching stories from families who did not know where their loved ones were or were found dead, just like the one I heard of a 72-year-old grandmother found in a ravine. Another was of my neighbour, Marie Jeanne Kreiser, who has been missing for over 30 years. I grew up next door to Marie's family in Edmonton. Charlene also knew this family. Because we saw the pain and suffering they endured, we were so grateful to be able to sit there and support the family. Not all of Marie's family was there and it made me want to reach out to them. At another session, we listened to a young man speaking about his sister Amber, who went missing close to Edmonton. So, so sad. It was not easy to watch this young man in so much pain. I broke down a lot in tears from the pain of those who are still suffering. My partner Charlene also went to sit with several of the survivors who shared personal stories of being raped and almost murdered.

The Inquiry is Not Bringing all the Families to Share their Stories

One of the challenges we heard from families was very disturbing. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls did not sponsor travel for all those who wanted to share their stories. (Late) Amber Tuccaro’s brother and sister-in-law came alone because the rest of his family were not funded to attend. Her son Jacob, the rest of her siblings and parents were not here because they were not supported for travel from Fort Chipewyan. There are a huge number of missing Indigenous women and girls in Fort Chipewyan and surrounding area. Amber’s brother had to read a letter out loud that his mom wrote about her experience, because she could not be there. We later learned that the brother only found out from the Inquiry that he and his wife would be sponsored to attend at the last minute.

How could this family not be brought to the National Inquiry to tell their story?

We also heard from our community partners in Southern Alberta that the National Inquiry wouldn't cover travel expenses for Southern Albertan families to be here! We need to keep supporting families as they add their voice to this process.

My partner, Charlene, asked a MMIWG Commissioner, Brian Eyolfson, why our Southern Alberta relatives were not supported to be here at the MMIWG public hearings. The Commissioner’s response was, “we may be having community hearings in other areas of Alberta after January 2018, but this has not yet been decided.” We are very concerned about the handling of this issue by the National Inquiry.

Complaints about the Police

Throughout the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, I heard many complaints about the police when families report about their missing relatives or are asking for answers in suspicious deaths. I learned that the police would say to relatives, “Your mom’s probably out partying. She’ll come home when she sobers up.” This mother has been gone for 30 years. While listening to these stories, I saw that the police profile Indigenous women as partiers who always want to get drunk. This makes them easy pickings. I was really angry by this racist justification given about Indigenous women to explain why they were missing or murdered. How the police have treated Indigenous women and their families is not fair. I have two granddaughters now and learning this made me so afraid for them.

Children Are Growing up without their Mothers, Aunties, and Grandmothers

As I continue to reflect on this national tragedy, I grow in anger knowing that children are growing up without their mothers, aunties, and grandmothers. Women are sacred in our communities. Women are leaders. This loss is incomprehensible. The Inquiry should have set up a database about this from the start. We need to uplift the families. The men too have to stand up against the violence. It's up to us, the communities, to help. I also want to acknowledge that the surviving Indigenous women, girls, and families are not victims. Sharing their stories at the Inquiry takes courage, strength, and resilience. I also learned that it is empowering to share their stories.

I want to share one more thing. Last year, for the first time, there was a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Chief Wilton Littlechild chaired what’s called a high-level panel that looked at the issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls. Chief Littlechild wants you to know there was a resolution passed at the Human Rights Council on this global issue. I included two statements that Chief Wilton Littlechild said at this meeting:

“Women now reject being categorized as victims and now demand recognition as rights holders.”

“And we must consider the role men play in preventing violence.”

During my time here, I acknowledge the Elders presence, the sweet smell of sage, our traditional medicine, and the beautiful sound of the drum. Despite the anger, the pain, the grief, it was good to have this powerful medicine here for the families, for all of us.

How to Help

“We need people to support, listen, and hold up people in prayer.

We need to acknowledge people in a good way.

We need to be there, be that medicine carrier.

Be a family support, they need it big time.”

Attend a community hearing in your area.

You can also watch the National Inquiry live stream or past community hearings.

For more information, go to the United Church Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls web page.

— Russel Burns is a member on the Aboriginal Ministries Council, Aboriginal Ministries, United Church of Canada and Cree from James Smith Cree Nation, Treaty 6 Territory.