MMIWG Community Hearing – A Day of Observation at the Truth Gathering Process (a student perspectiv
Editor's notes: The hearing was heard at the Radisson Hotel, Winnipeg, MB. Thursday, Oct.19th 3:15pm-5:00pm. Please note that this hearing was live streamed and covered by APTN and other news sources , the hearings were public hearings posted on the MMIWG website and that the Inquiry was also producing detailed written content using the real names of the family members affected.
According to their website, the purpose of the National Inquiry for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ (MMIWG) community hearings is to find, honour and give life to the truth about MMIWG. They outline that their goal during these hearings is to give families an authentic opportunity to speak about their loved ones in a culturally safe place with access to traditional Indigenous supports such as Elders, medicines, and art. The community hearing in Winnipeg began with an opening ceremony on Monday, October 23rd and continued until Friday October 20th. Seventy families were given the opportunity to tell their stories to the commissioners both privately and publicly. Although they are not able to reopen cases, commissioners stated that they want to know how police investigated cases so they can later question them on their processes.
I was able to sit in on two public hearings on Thursday afternoon. The first was with the family of Eileen Mary Roulette (Houle). Unfortunately, I only witnessed the tail end of the session. The second was the daughter and friends of Linda Bighetty. The hearings took place on the eleventh floor of the Radisson Hotel in downtown Winnipeg.
The room was quiet when I walked in and smelled of freshly burned sage. There were roughly 50-60 community members sitting in the crowd. Boxes of tissues were scattered amongst the audience. There were people in every corner wearing shirts with ‘Health Support’ written on the back. I later found out that the Inquiry had also ensured that an Elder would be made available upon request for anyone seeking emotional or spiritual support. The families were situated at the front of the room directly across from Commissioner Michelle Audette and her team. In between them lay a collection of traditional medicines and objects, including a small fire which sat atop a blanket embroidered with the words “keep the circle strong”. A table filled with hot and cold snacks and beverages was set up in the back of the room. Individual drawings stitched together on a quilt made up the scene’s backdrop at the front. A somber and serious energy filled the room.
Eileen Mary Roulette was murdered in 1966. She was described by her family as happy, loving and a great mother. Her daughter, Erin, sat amongst six other family members and spoke of her personal experience of losing her mother to such a brutal and violent act. She said the murder of her mother lead her into a deep depression which lasted decades and resulted in drug abuse. Erin, now sober, spoke of the incomprehensible pain she felt for many years after her mother’s murder. She said it was not until recently that she felt ready for any type of grief counselling. She credits the love of her children and the support of other friends and family for helping her get through the darkest of days. Erin and her aunt Gertrude, Eileen’s sister, both spoke of their own experiences of domestic violence. Gertrude also talked about losing sleep after finding out about her sister’s murder because every time she closed her eyes she would see the image of her sister lying dead in the bush. It seemed as though each family member was able to speak for as long as they wanted and about anything they wanted. I got the sense that most of the people speaking had never told their stories before and felt as though they had a lot to say. The facilitator, who sat right next to the families, never interrupted a family member and gave them time to pause during difficult moments.
Sonny, another one of Eileen’s family members, spoke about his experiences with the RCMP following Eileen’s disappearance. He said the RCMP did very little to investigate into her case, and it wasn’t until he called and told them he presumed she was dead that they took her case seriously. Sonny, like many of the family members, expressed a deep frustration with the way law enforcement handled the investigation into his loved one’s death. In telling the commissioner that Eileen’s murderer only received 6 years in prison, he stated, “if that’s justice, there is no justice”. Sonny was obviously disheartened by the way Eileen’s death had been dealt with by the authorities. He asked that the commission look seriously into the systemic racism that he believes is prevalent in the RCMP. Eileen’s family also asked that missing and murdered men and boys not be overlooked during the inquiry as they have a male cousin who has been missing since 2014.
Commissioner Michele Audette, who sat across from the family and listened to their testimony, only spoke after it was made clear that the family had expressed everything they wanted to say. In terms of the systemic racism within the criminal justice system, she stated: “we are making sure that Canada is listening”. She acknowledged that law enforcement agencies have not been as quick to respond to Indigenous cases as they are with other missing and murdered individuals. Before hugging and comforting each family member, who the Commissioner referred to as ‘warriors’, the family was presented with eagle feathers collected off of Canadian beach shores.
After a ten-minute break to clean up the used tissues from Eileen’s family, the daughter of Linda Bighetty, Jenny Lay, was walked into the room surrounded five of her friends and family. Before the proceeding begin, a traditional song and drum ceremony was performed in honour of Jenny’s strength and courageousness. I was surprised to hear many people from the audience join in on signing the Anishinaabe song. Jenny was then asked by one of the Inquiry’s staff to solemnly tell the full truth for which she replied in the affirmative. She was then told she could feel free to say anything she felt she needed to say. Jenny proceeded to tell the traumatic story of her mother’s murder at the hands of her father.
Jenny, now a twenty-three-year-old woman, was only four when her mother Linda was reported missing after not being accounted for at the women’s shelter where she had been staying. Linda was transitioning from a shelter in Grande Prairie, Alberta to her home reserve in Nelson House, Manitoba. Jenny and her older sister were living with their father in Grande Prairie at the time. The police immediately went to Jenny’s father’s home where it was reported that they could see Linda’s foot through the window hanging out from under the futon. Her body was found naked, bound and covered in blankets. Records show that the scene was consistent with domestic abuse and homicide. Jenny’s father was shortly arrested, but was quickly granted bail. Her father died by suicide while awaiting trial.
Jenny, who is now finishing up a post-secondary degree in Winnipeg, only ever knew of the details of her mother’s case from her father’s family members. This lead to growing up with conflicting and confusing stories about the murder. She had gone to the RCMP years ago to ask about her mother’s case but was told that she would have to wait until 20 years after the murder. Jenny wished she had been given the unbiased details of Linda’s murder by the police when she was younger. She was told that she was too young to hear about the murder, but she argued that children who lose their parents at any age are already traumatized and shielding them from the details does more harm than good. She also thought it was vital to tell children about such details because it could prevent similar experiences in the future.
Jenny also had some serious criticism over the way she was treated after the murder. Her and her sister went to family court to determine who would get their custody. Some family members who wanted to adopt them had seriously abused the children in the past. She was disturbed that no one did a background check into some of these family members. They did eventually live with their great aunt, who Jenny said did her best to raise them. The girls also never received any sort of professional help after the matter. They were never seen by a psychologist, a counselor or social worker. No one ever asked her how she was doing. She wished she had been able to build up a relationship with someone who could have helped her gain the life skills her parents were no longer able to teach her.
Along with telling her story, Jenny made recommendations to the Inquiry. Along with providing unbiased information and funding long-term grief counselling to victim’s families, she would like to see more support in regard to women’s shelters. Jenny believes that if Linda had been given adequate resources at the shelter, such as someone to accompany her back to her ex-husband's house where she was murdered, she would still be alive today. She is concerned with the high rates of domestic abuse in Canada, and believes that improving women’s shelters would curve these rates. Jenny also commented on the lack of shelters on reserves in Manitoba. This forces women who are experiencing abuse to move to unfamiliar urban centres such as Winnipeg, which can make them more vulnerable to victimization.
Jenny wants to see more bursaries and scholarships going to help educate the families of MMIWG. She also asked that the children of MMIWG be given more trauma support and resources by the Inquiry. Jenny, like many other children of MMIWG, are the ones who have to carry around the burden of her mother’s murder for the rest of her life. Jenny feels she had been forgotten in the system and now again in the Inquiry.
The emotional two-hour long session ended with a prayer by an Elder. Following the session, I was curious to know how the family hearings had been received by the families. I reviewed some of the sessions which were recorded by APTN and found many family members to be highly critical of the Commissioner’s conduct and the likely outcomes of the Inquiry.
In general, families of MMIWG are concerned with issues such as: condensing the stories of more than 70 families into only 5 days of hearings; providing enough time for each family member to speak; funding to bring families to the meetings; families who cannot access the technology required to get in touch with the Inquiry; establishing harm reduction and safe places for survivors and people still in abusive situations; the increasing number of MMIWG in Manitoba in particular; families who have not been made aware of the hearings but who wish to speak; re-traumatization of victims; significant follow up with families; lack of awareness education to men and non-Indigenous citizens; lack of quantifiable justice for victims; unlikely penalties for perpetrators; increasing rates of sex trafficking; lack of educational opportunities for Indigenous youth; inaccessible healing spaces; too many victims and families and not enough resources; and lack of transparency and information from the Inquiry. This is not a comprehensive list; each hearing involved families asking for more from the Inquiry.
It will be interesting to see how the Commissioners use the information gathered at the family hearings to inform the MMIWG report. The goal is that the Inquiry will touch on and improve all the areas of concern identified by the families. As time passes and more issues arise surrounding the Inquiry, it seems as though this goal is getting farther and farther out of reach. Fortunately, survivors remain strong and committed to bringing justice to MMIWG and the community will not let them be easily forgotten.