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“Canada needs to hear the truth”

A sorrowful and essential week at the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Inquiry in Whitehorse

A sorrowful and essential week at the missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry

If you drove through downtown Whitehorse this spring, chances are you passed the streamers that hung on a public art piece in Shipyards Park. There was a banner there too, for almost a month. For Wendy who we loved, it read.

Wendy was Wendy Carlick, 51, a member of the Kaska Nation. Years before Stephen Harper said an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls was “not really high on our radar”, Wendy was an advocate for the issue. She had been since 2007, when the remains of her own daughter, Angel Carlick, were discovered in a wooded area near a hydro access road in Whitehorse.

“This is a sorrowful but essential part of our national history.”

That case was still unsolved this April, when Wendy and Sarah McIntosh, of Kwanlin Dün First Nation, were found dead inside a home in the city’s McIntyre subdivision. RCMP in Whitehorse quickly labelled it a double homicide.

Both women were on the minds of Yukoners this week when the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, launched by the Trudeau government in September 2016, came to the territory for its first public hearings.

Star Drynock and her father Norman Drynock receive hugs after speaking about her mother Deborah Evangeline Edwards. Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Chief Commissioner Marion Buller, along with Commissioners Michele Audette, Marilyn Poitras, Brian Eyolfson, and Qajaq Robinson, met with families at Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre.

On the grass beside the Yukon River, a large, white wedding-style tent was divided in two by a black curtain. In one half, spectators watched the hearings on a screen. In the other half, the commissioners met with families.

The walls of the tent were draped with quilts bearing handwritten messages. The floors were scattered with tear bags — brown paper bags where people put tissues to be thrown into the sacred fire that burned beside the tent for four days and nights.  

“All of Canada needs to hear the truth about the violence that Indigenous women and girls have endured for generations, and continue to endure,” said Buller on Tuesday morning. “Why? This is a sorrowful but essential part of our national history. We need to recognize and understand colonization and racism. We need to heal and we need to craft solutions. When an Indigenous woman or girl goes missing, is murdered, or is harmed, we are all weaker. As families, as communities, and as a nation.”

Jeanie Dendys, Mountainview MLA and minister of the Women’s Directorate in Yukon, called it an historic week for Canada, and said the success of the inquiry is vital. The world, she said, is watching.

“If I see this fall apart, I’ll never trust again.”

In Whitehorse, it was largely women watching. Men did attend and participate in the inquiry, but supporters, spectators, and speakers were mostly women, and mostly First Nations.

Over the course of three days, the stories of more than 50 community members were told, some publicly, some privately. They were shocking individually, but even moreso as a whole because of the overlap. Because of the way they blurred together. The common threads — of residential school, mental, physical, and sexual abuse, suicide, alcoholism, drug use, isolation, and being ignored by police — made them even more horrifying. No matter how many people say it, it doesn’t get any less astounding to hear a woman say she’s had multiple relatives die violently.   

Dorothy Hayes, who spoke Wednesday, has lost six family members that way.

Hayes was the only speaker to stand in front of the commission on her own.

Most of her eight siblings, the ones who are still alive, haven’t spoken to her in years. Not since she took their father to court over the abuse he inflicted on them.

Dorothy Hayes outside the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre. Photo by Amy Kenny.

Dressed in tearaways and a windbreaker, Hayes calls herself a fighter. She drove to Whitehorse for the inquiry from Watson Lake, where she works as a jail guard. She’s been in and out of shelters for more than three years because of a lack of housing in her community. She’s also running for Chief of Liard First Nation. When she was five years old, her dad “strung her up” by the fridge and held a knife to her throat. It took Hayes a few years to go to the RCMP over the ongoing abuse, and then it took a few tries before she found an officer who would listen, but seventh time’s the charm.

“I have no faith at all that the Canadian state is going to respond to this inquiry in any way different to how they’ve responded to any other inquiry.”

“He just said to me, ‘nobody can give me a story like that unless it was true,’” Hayes told the commissioners. “I love that man to this day. Bless his heart.”

Among her missing and murdered, Georgie and Gloria were the older brother and sister Hayes never knew. She still doesn’t know what happened to them. She’s also unsure of the details surrounding the death of her Aunt Rose. Her Aunt Elsie left the husband who once broke both Elsie’s arms. Elsie then re-married a more abusive man. She was shot dead, though Hayes told the commission the investigation never led anywhere. Then there was her cousin, Angel Carlick, and Angel’s mom Wendy.

Ann Szabo speaks about her murdered mother May Stewart. Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Hayes spoke confidently throughout her testimony. We’re called First Nations, she told the commission. Why then, do they always come last?

Others, including Terry Ladue, speaking for the first time, were strong, but visibly shaken.

Ladue, Kaska Dene of the Crow clan, said his mother, Jane Dick-Ladue, was beaten to death after he and his siblings were taken to residential school. He spoke in a low, vulnerable voice as he remembered sitting in a bathtub in residential school, using a wire brush to try to scrub his skin white. Eventually he moved to Vancouver, he said, stuck a needle in his arm to get past the pain.

Ladue explained that the impact of his mother’s death was simple — he never learned to love. He’s a grown man, with beautiful grandchildren, and he’s afraid to visit them.

Ladue said he was dealing with his pain through the inquiry because he wanted to let go of an anger he’d held onto for decades, toward the government and the RCMP.

“I really don’t trust people like you guys,” he told the commission, saying he was sick of words. He wanted action.

“If I see this fall apart, I’ll never trust again.”

Bernee Bolton, communications director for the inquiry, said she was unaware of any local RCMP in attendance. Coralee Reid, director of strategic communications, RCMP Yukon, said Cpl. Kayreen Brickner attended various hearings, sometimes at the request of families.

Joan Jack, from Atlin, B.C., said her family didn’t want to testify for similar reasons. They’ve seen it before. The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in 1988. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1992. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008.  

“I have no faith at all that the Canadian state is going to respond to this inquiry in any way different to how they’ve responded to any other inquiry,” said Jack. “For me, the value, and how I convinced my family to come, is that we as a family can engage in this process and create, through this process, what we need as a family to heal and to keep going. And we did that.”

“Where are the white feminists?” she asked. “If I was a river, all the environmentalists would be here.”

Jack was also irritated that the inquiry was largely attended by First Nations women.

“Where are the white feminists?” she asked. “If I was a river, all the environmentalists would be here.”

Jack did say she was heartened by some things. When her family arrived in Tlingit regalia to speak about Barbara, they said they didn’t want to swear in because it made them feel as though they were on trial. The commission agreed to that.  

Jack was also pleased that when she shared her thoughts on participant aftercare with Terrellyn Fearn, director of health for the inquiry, Fearn (who had 19 support workers offering help before, during, and after the hearings) was receptive.

“I think the inquiry can do and should do a lot better at facilitating families support of each other simultaneously,” said Jack. “Not just a family tent, but there should be two agendas running. The one where the hearings are happening and another one running simultaneously in another big tent, where you have families sharing with each other, empowering each other, getting to know each other, laughing, crying, eating, healing.”

For some, that did happen.

Hayes said that, even though she’s told her story more than once, it felt good in a new way to say it at the inquiry. She never thought she’d see the day something like this came to Canada. She called it glorious, and said she was thankful to everyone involved in putting it together.

Buller echoed those thanks during a closing statement on Thursday.

“I want to tell you that it’s been a … change,” she said, voice cracking, pausing as she struggled to get the words out. “The spirits of the missing and murdered women and girls came. They joined us here. Survivors of violence brought their courage, their wisdom, and their resilience, and shared that with us.”

They also shared songs, recitations, and, maybe most memorably, a prayer.

That came from the week’s final speaker, William Carlick, brother of Wendy.

William spoke little about the specifics of his sister’s death, but closed out his testimony by asking everyone in the room — family, friends, commissioners, media, the sound guys — to stand and hold hands while he led them in a prayer.

In the overflow room, on the other side of the black curtain, spectators made their own circle.

Carlick set down his microphone, joined the circle, said it was time to turn off all the chatter.

“It’s time to stop,” he said. “It’s time to listen.”

The inquiry is scheduled to hold additional hearings in the fall.

Cover: Cecilia Gobeil wipes away tears as she speaks about her murdered mother Tootsie Charlie at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

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