Tears and fears

Weekly Cover | Canada’s efforts to understand the disappearance of hundreds of indigenous women makes a stop in Nunavut

The faces that launched the trail of tissues

Kevin McGwin

This week, Canada’s trail of tears continues to Nunavut, where the councillors guiding the national inquiry into the disappearance and murder of perhaps 1,000 or more indigenous women and girls over the past four decades will hold their only meeting in traditional Inuit territory. As with previous MMIWG meetings held elsewhere in Canada, there will be crying.

An expected 20 family members from Nunavut and further afield will be in Rankin Inlet to tell the stories of loved ones who are no longer with them. Counsellors will be there to provide comfort should it all get to be too much, but they will not tell them to hold back: families testifying, as well as those in the gallery, are asked to deposit their dampened tissues in paper sacks that will be burned at the end of the session. The ashes will be transported to the site of the next meeting.

The point of asking people to relive their trauma is two-fold. For the individual, it is a way to of coming to grips with the loss of a loved one.

[Missing women’s day]

For the Canadian nation, the testimonies are a way to begin to understand why its 750,000 or so indigenous women are five times more likely be killed by a violent act than the country’s female population as a whole.

While the meetings seek to honour those who have been taken away from their loved ones, for the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Commission, the goal of the sessions is to prevent more women from suffering the same fate. One of the ways they will do this is to ask women who have survived domestic violence to testify. Their experiences will give counsellors, communities and law-enforcement officials insight into what happens in a relationship leading up to deaths and disappearances.

Everyone involved believes that law-enforcement has some role to play, but whether it should have the lead role had, until the election of a new government in 2015, been a matter of debate.

As calls mounted for an official inquiry into why indigenous women and girls were being victimised at such high rates, Stephen Harper, the former prime minister, maintained they were a matter for the police to look into, not a “sociological phenomenon” that required the establishment of a new public body.

His opponents, led by Justin Trudeau, the current prime minister, pledged that, if elected, they would launch an inquiry. This was a promise they kept, and, on September 25 of last year, the first testimony meeting was held, in Smithers, British Columbia. Rankin Inlet is the 11th session. Two more are scheduled to follow. A final report is to be submitted by the end of the year.

Forty-five Inuit women have been lost since 1980, but the meeting in Nunavut has been touch and go from the start. An initial lack of communication between the territory’s leading women’s advocacy group and the commission led to initial uncertainty about whether a meeting would be held there at all.

A December meeting was confirmed this past July, but then postponed in November. The initial announcement that it was being put off indefinitely, adding unease to the grief of those hoping to tell their stories to someone. Eventually, it was rescheduled.

After initial concern that families did not appear interested in testifying, or able to travel to Rankin Inlet to do so, attendance on the opening day of the session was standing-room only; all time slots for those seeking to testify are filled, as are the seats for those who are willing to listen.

That will help aid the commission in its work, but it cannot change the fact that, no matter how many seats they fill, for some families, a full house is impossible.

The Weekly Cover is The Rasmussen’s main story of the week. These articles will sometimes look ahead at one of the more important or interesting topics of the coming week, or they may provide insight and analysis about a current issue.

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