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Will an Inquiry into the Deaths of Canadian Aboriginal Women Bring Peace to Their Families?

Mag Cywink, who has spent over two decades searching for justice in her sister's murder, fears a national inquiry will hurt those who it is trying to help the most.

The last family photo taken of Sonya during the family's July 1994 informal gathering in Espanola, Ontario. Sonya is crouching in the blue shirt at the front. All photos courtesy Mag Cywink.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Read Part 1 of this story here.

Mag Cywink has spent more than two decades hoping whoever killed her younger sister Sonya would some day face justice. Sonya, an Ojibway woman from Whitefish River First Nation, was last seen in London, Ontario, on August 24, 1994. Her body was found five days later at Southwold Earthworks, a 40-minute drive southwest.


In a case without resolution, Mag finds solace in her sister's final resting place.

Southwold Earthworks National Historic Site is leafy and green in the summer, surrounded by clearly visible mounds of soil—earthworks—intentionally shaped around a fortified village built centuries ago by the Attiwandaron.

"This was a real tragedy for us and definitely for Sonya and her child, but I look at that place as being a sacred place," Mag says. If it had to happen, "I'm glad it happened here."

Sonya was killed at a time when headlines about missing and murdered indigenous women were rare. Mag has seen the frequency of these headlines increase, but she has not seen justice for her sister.

"It's almost like we get inundated with this information now," she says, "people are just kind of like, 'Oh, that's just another missing and murdered woman.' It sort of passes by people's radars."

Southwold Earthworks, where Sonya's body was found, as pictured in August 2014, on the twentieth anniversary of her death.

That's part of why Sonya, in death, has become Sonya Nadine Mae. How many other Sonyas have been murdered or gone missing? Mag wonders.

She doesn't know exactly. What she does know is that nearly 1,200 indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered in the last three decades. That's according to an RCMP report released last year. Yet some believe those high numbers may actually understate the truth. The RCMP report is "statistically skewed," wrote Pam Palmater, a Mi'kmaq lawyer and chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, on her website, Indigenous Nationhood.


Palmater highlights numerous problems with the RCMP's review. To name a few: the limitations of the Canadian Police Information Centre; women whose disappearances were never documented, or who were mislabeled as "white"; a highly problematic reliance on Indian Status to determine who is indigenous; and the violence Aboriginal women and girls have faced from the RCMP itself, per a lengthy Human Rights Watch report.

Amongst all this violence, "There could be 15 Sonyas that have been murdered," Mag says. She would like people to know her Sonya—to know her strengths, her skills, and how much she was loved, how much she is missed, how much her family still hopes for justice for Sonya, and for the unborn baby they never got to meet.

Mag Cywink.

In early April this year, Mag wrote an opinion piece for the Manitoulin Expositor. Her first sentence: "Is a national inquiry going to answer the question and solve the epidemic of Canada's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls?" Her answer: I don't think so.

"I'm not really popular," Mag says, because she doesn't support a national inquiry, yet in the community she surrounds herself with, she says many do. Many indigenous people across Canada agree with her and others still are unsure; there is no uniform indigenous opinion on whether an inquiry would help. However, much of the media attention has focused on the push for a national inquiry.

Part of why Mag says she doesn't support an inquiry is because there are so many factors underlying the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls that she feels need addressing now. As she wrote in her opinion piece: "those who are living on or off reserve, poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol substance abuse, lack of safe housing, adequate education and job skills, early pregnancy, gang activity, abductions, mental issues, domestic abuse and violence, child welfare, questions about the lack of stricter sentencing, adoption, inadequate policing into the death or disappearance at all levels to name a few."


The arguments in favor of an inquiry have been passionate, personal, and persuasive, but Mag worries about the money that would be spent. That money, she believes, would be better used to reinstate funding for projects like Sisters in Spirit—a research, education and policy initiative, led by Aboriginal women, whose funding was cut by the federal government in 2010—and on community-led prevention projects. Mag also fears that an inquiry might diminish the voices of the very people it's supposed to help—the families who've lost loved ones—by focusing too much on lawyers, judges, and "First Nations representatives." (This is what happened in the Robert Pickton inquiry.)

What will another inquiry achieve? Mag wonders.

"Awareness leads to understanding leads to action," says Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Bellegarde's been lobbying the federal government for a national inquiry, although he stresses it's not meant to replace other remedies.

"The inquiry that we're pushing for is not to get in the way of action needed on the ground," he says, and much is required.

A 2014 report from the UN's Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples highlighted Canada's failings: "Despite positive steps, daunting challenges remain. The numerous initiatives that have been taken at the federal and provincial/territorial levels to address the problems faced by indigenous peoples have been insufficient. The well-being gap between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada has not narrowed over the past several years; treaty and aboriginal claims remain persistently unresolved; indigenous women and girls remain vulnerable to abuse; and overall there appear to be high levels of distrust among indigenous peoples towards the government at both the federal and provincial levels."


An inquiry, Bellegarde says, would help to address the broader systemic issues: the ways in which Canadian laws, organizations, and politics have contributed to disproportionately high rates of violence against indigenous women and girls.

In particular, it would open Canada's eyes, "So they start viewing indigenous women in a real light where they're valued as human beings because right now you can look at society as a whole and say, 'They don't appear to value First Nations women. They are less than other women. They are less.' And the point we make continually is that their lives are just as important."

Mag agrees with these goals, but isn't sure the inquiry is the way to achieve them.

To work, Mag says, the solutions "can't come from the top down." The people most affected aren't on Parliament Hill, she argues—they're almost worlds away from Ottawa, many in rural, far-flung, isolated communities.

"Each individual territory… has their own specific issues and I think only those places know what their problems really are," she says.

She'd like to see a series of smaller, community-led inquiries coupled with organizations specific to different communities working to break well-documented cycles of violence, poverty, and poor education. "We are the bearers of these children," Mag says. The rest of Canada should play a supporting role by getting educated and learning the facts since "a lot of people stick their heads in the sand."


"It's not going to change overnight," Mag cautions. "I'm the generation where change is happening now, and it's going to take probably another three or four generations before we get where we need to be. Maybe longer."

Whatever form an inquiry takes, it is unlikely to achieve meaningful change if it doesn't break decisively with the federal government's history of paternalism towards indigenous people. The existence of status remains a serious problem, says Larry Chartrand, a Métis law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in issues of indigenous identity—specifically, "The idea that one people or race can define who is a member of another community or race." Indeed, the United Nations recognizes the right to self-determination.

"Canadians should be somewhat cautious about having a government that feels it has the authority to define who another people is," he says. By "defining another people, you can have authority to legislate over that people," as with the Indian Act, and this "diminishes their humanity. It takes away their independence as a people. It can be very devastating. I think if communities realized the connection between citizenship and the government imposition of status and how that has had that negative effect, I think Canadians might be more sympathetic to some of the challenges indigenous peoples face."

Sonya wrote letters upon letters growing up. Mag still has a couple of these old missives, written in her sister's flowing, elegant handwriting. Sonya had this talent for cursive, Mag says, everything she wrote was unerringly beautiful and graceful to look at. "It looks like she was just painting," Mag says. To have some of Sonya's words, her art—to be able to trace the lines she wrote—feels like a gift. Mag looks; she reads; she remembers.

"Sonya set the sisterhood bar high," she says. Mag wants people to know that. She wants people to understand, even just a little, the wonderful woman who was her sister.

"[Sonya] was intelligent; she was kind; she was funny; she was gentle," Mag says. "She taught me to love deeply and to forgive others often." Her voice trails off, then continues. "I miss her every day."

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