Horrific stories of abuse, rape and murder were told at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Wednesday afternoon in Richmond, but the tragic stories were always filled with love and kernels of hope for the next generation.
Bonnie Fowler and Cynthia Cardinal told the devastating story of their sister, Georgina Papin, mother of seven, whose remains were found on Robert Pickton’s farm in 2002. The family of nine siblings born between 1960 and 1970 all grew up in foster care or on the streets.
Lori Davis told the story of her sister, Carol Ruby Davis, who was murdered in 1987. Her pain was palpable when she shared how her sister’s name was misspelled on the missing women’s poster and how it made her feel her sister was forgotten.
Fowler said reporting her sister missing felt like reporting a missing wallet.
“I guess I felt like they didn’t take us seriously,” she said.
The family didn’t get regular updates from the police.
“I found out (about Georgina’s remains) reading it in the Edmonton newspaper. I couldn’t stop shaking when I read it,” Cardinal said.
Fowler, the youngest of the siblings, said she lived in five foster homes by the age of five and that life was “violent and nerve wracking.”
“I remember being terrified every day,” she said. “Whatever I did I got in trouble for it, even laughing.”
Eventually, Fowler met her older sister, Papin, and spent quite a bit of time with her and was devastated when she died. Her hopes today are for Georgina’s children.
“We need to have healing for the kids. It’s not money that’s going to fix that. It’s love and culture and us,” Fowler said.
Commission to examine and report on systemic causes of violence
Commissioners Marion Buller, Michele Audette, Brian Eyolfson and Qajaq Robinson are tasked with examining and reporting on the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls. The inquiry was called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 and since it began, more than 1,400 family members and survivors have registered to participate.
Although Indigenous women and girls make up just four per cent of the female population of Canada, by 2015, 24 per cent of homicide victims in Canada were Indigenous women, the commission’s interim report says. An Indigenous woman is 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other woman in Canada, the report says.
“The issues facing Indigenous women and girls are complex and systemic,” the interim report says. “People are concerned about how to address issues linked to cultural genocide, residential schools, and the Sixties Scoop, each with intergenerational impacts, without feeding harmful stereotypes or causing further harm.”
The Commission has asked for a two-year extension to complete its work and lists a number of operational and communications challenges in its interim report. One commissioner, Marilyn Poitras, resigned last July, telling the CBC she quit because the hearings were using an ineffective model with little chance of change.
The inquiry opened with a blanket ceremony to signify a fresh start or a new beginning. All of the hearings took place on comfy chairs, where witnesses were surrounded by supporters in rooms covered with memorial quilts on the walls.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip spoke during the opening, saying his heart is with the witnesses.
“We have an opportunity here to once again stand together shoulder to shoulder … and to reach down into our hearts and souls and find that special courage to share our stories, which are so, so important for the world, for this country and for our people to hear,” Phillip said.
Witness says she felt her sister was forgotten
Lori Davis told the story of her sister, Carol Ruby Davis, who was murdered in 1987. Her pain was palpable when she shared how her sister’s name was misspelled on the missing women’s poster and how it made her feel her sister was forgotten and that she herself was invisible.
She said she was planning to bury her sister in an outfit of new clothes she bought specifically for an open-casket ceremony.
“It was at that point the police told me the only way they knew who she was, was from her teeth,” Davis said. “I guess she’d been there for a while and we hadn’t heard from her for a while. … It was only bones and teeth that were left of her.”
But Davis finished her story with a strong message from her 20-year-old niece and hope for the next generation.
Juanita Desjarlais told her story of being abused as a child, raped as a teenager and stabbed and beaten nearly to death as a young person. She was placed in foster care at about age five and remembers being confined to a room, with food slipped under the door.
“I never had that bonding or that love provided to me, like children should have,” she told the inquiry.
As a teenager, she became addicted to heroin and cocaine, was forced into sex work to pay for drugs and gave birth to a stillborn baby.
But she also told the story about getting clean after nearly being stabbed to death.
“I believe it was divine intervention or something – I was supposed to live to share my story to encourage and inspire our young people, our girls, to be brave,” Desjarlais said. “There is a time that’s coming where our younger generation will rise up for what’s right and all those perpetrators out there will be ousted.”
Jamie Lee Hamilton, a transgender woman who grew up on the east side of Vancouver, told the inquiry that she was involved in the sex trade on and off for 48 years. Hamilton has run for several civic political offices as an independent candidate, most recently in 2017 when she ran for the Vancouver School Board.
She told the inquiry that she experienced violence during her work in the sex trade, both from clients and from the police. She said she knew many women who went missing from the Downtown Eastside and that they were “considered disposables, throwaways.”
“There were so, so many (missing women) and they deserved so much better,” Hamilton says. “It was so sad to see them going missing and nothing being done.”
Richmond sessions will include nearly 100 witnesses
The hearings in Richmond are the biggest to date, with nearly 100 people registered to tell their stories. If the commission isn’t granted the extension it has requested, these will be the last public hearings.
“This week we’re going to hear from our 1,000th witness and more,” Chief Commissioner Marion Buller told the inquiry. “They are courageous people who have come forward … to share their truths. They are rewriting Canadian history and setting the record straight about the lives of Indigenous women and girls.
“It’s time for us to reclaim our rightful places as Indigenous people in Canada. Our rightful places as respected, beautiful, strong people who have answers all Canadians need to hear.”
The Richmond event is hosted by four First Nations Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, Musqueam and Tsawwassen and will continue through Sunday. While in the Lower Mainland, the commission will also collect statements from people in the Downtown Eastside.