How Canada's Indigenous Families Grieve the Loss of Their Loved Ones
The sun rises over the Valley of Fort Qu’Appelle. The Cree and the Saulteaux First Nations once roamed these lands in search of buffalo. It was here, in 1874, where their rights and privileges to 75,000 square miles of land were signed over to the Queen under Treaty 4. All photographs by Sara Hylton

How Canada's Indigenous Families Grieve the Loss of Their Loved Ones

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimated that between 1980 and 2012, around 1,200 Indigenous women were murdered or went missing.
April 4, 2018, 4:44pm

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On September 25, 2013, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Kelly Goforth’s body was found, inside a hockey bag, at the bottom of a dumpster. Goforth’s killer, a white male named Clayton Bo Eichler, also killed Richele Bear, another Indigenous woman, and Goforth’s family suspects he may have murdered others. These are not isolated incidents in Saskatchewan, one of many areas in Canada struggling with a shameful history of abuse, neglect, and indifference toward its First Nations women and people.


The Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police estimates that 51 percent of missing women in Saskatchewan are Indigenous, though they make up only 16.1 percent of the population. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that Canada was guilty of committing cultural genocide against Indigenous people—the impact of which has been intergenerational and gendered. The 1.67 million Indigenous people living in Canada—First Nations, Métis, and Inuit—experience high levels of poverty and are plagued by addiction, family breakdown, and some of the highest suicide rates in the world. Yet women and girls continue to face the brunt of a systemic racism prevalent throughout the country.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimated that between 1980 and 2012, around 1,200 Indigenous women were murdered or went missing. The Native Women’s Association of Canada argues that these numbers could be as high as 4,000, because many cases that police classify as unsuspicious—drug overdoses, natural causes, suicide—may have been foul play according to victims’ families. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised an independent national inquiry into the issue during his campaign in 2015, but it didn’t begin until August 2016, and it took until May 2017 for the first public hearing to start. Its stated mandate is to “examine the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and members of the LGBTQ2S community in Canada.”


The two-year process has less than a year left and has been met with delays, disappointment, and controversy. According to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, more than 180 family members and 80 supporters have signed a letter requesting Trudeau to reboot the inquiry. The inquiry has faced more than 20 resignations and layoffs, including high-profile resignations from the commissioner Marilyn Poitras and the executive director Michèle Moreau. Communication issues and lack of transparency are increasing frustrations among families seeking justice.

After 15 years away, I returned to Saskatchewan, my home, and spent the month of April 2017 traveling across the province. I wanted to portray the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) in a way that wasn’t desensitized—with natural portraiture, as well as evidential landscapes, that told their stories in a humane and intimate manner. I photographed only women and documented them in their most emotional spaces: the places where they felt closest to their loved ones. What I found is a community of strong tradition and incredible resilience.

Aleisha Charles, 21, shows a tattoo dedicated to her mother, Happy Charles, whose name in Cree, “Kokuminahkisis,” means “black widow.” Aleisha and her three sisters traveled to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, from La Ronge, more than 100 miles, to search for their mother, who went missing at the beginning of April 2017. Though their mother is addicted to intravenous drugs and has been in and out of rehab since she was a teenager, she has never been missing for this long, according to Regina Poitras, Happy’s mother. Happy Charles remains missing to this day.

Dannataya, 11, and her aunt Michelle Burns, 31, nd peace among the trees in Prince Albert. Monica Lee Burns, Dannataya’s mother and Michelle’s twin sister, was murdered by a stranger, 38-year-old white male Todd Daniel McKeaveney, and found dead in a desolate area outside Prince Albert in January 2015. McKeaveney received 13 years in prison. “I feel lonesome a lot. My Elder tells me to pray to the Creator and to go near a tree,” Michelle said. “When you think about all the missing and murdered Indigenous women, they don’t have a voice, so their family members are the ones trying to have a voice. I have to remember that [Dannataya] is watching me. When I walk, I try to walk with good intentions so that when she’s older she won’t end up lost. Her mom would want good things for her.”

Tracey George Heese, 42, sits in a tepee on buffalo skin, a symbol that reminds her of her late mother, Winnifred George. Winnifred was murdered and discovered next to a park bench in Edmonton, Alberta, more than 20 years ago. Tracey still has no answers. “This buffalo skin represents Canada, this North America. This was [our ancestors’] land. I think of all the buffalo that were slaughtered [here]… Are aboriginal women to be sacrificed as the buffalo have?” said Tracey. “Not enough is being done. The Canadian system is derailing us… growing up and hearing of these deaths of our aboriginal women, it doesn’t matter if we’re educated. All you have to say is she’s aboriginal, and people have that stereotype.”

Diane Big Eagle is pictured with her grandchildren— Talon, ten, and Cassidy, 14—and their cat, Waf es, in their favorite park in Regina. Diane’s daughter Danita Big Eagle disappeared more than ten years ago, and her case remains unresolved. Diane has been caring for her grandchildren since. “I want them to be happy,” she said. “When I’m sad, they’re sad; when I get depressed, they get depressed. If I can manage to cope, so will they. I have to make them think she’s somewhere out there… that she’s coming back.”

Tracey George Heese’s eagle feather and buffalo rawhide belt, symbolic items she uses in ceremony and traditional dance, sit atop buffalo skin. “Being initiated into the pow- wow circles has helped me dance forward in life, to claim back my identity… to dance for those who cannot dance,” Tracey said. Since her mother’s death, Tracey has become active in speaking out on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. “It is known when holding eagle feathers to speak only the truth… For me, the MMIW [movement] is to bring awareness for those that can no longer speak.”

Jessica LaPlante, 31, stands on the prairies north of Regina. “Growing up as an Indigenous girl on the prairies, you know you’re not safe. As a teenager, being followed, having white men approach you, there’s that fear. You know how you’re valued in society,” Jessica said. She has become an advocate on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women since she has had two family members disappear. “The idea that Indigenous women are less valued than other women is so deeply rooted… Our people are so devalued and dehumanized, until we look at all the factors we can’t do our missing justice.”

A little girl plays at Elder Archie Weenie’s healing center, on the outskirts of Regina, as her mother participates in a sweat lodge. Elder Weenie holds sweat lodges and pipe ceremonies, and offers traditional teachings as a path to healing. Many who participate, including adults and children, have been victims of trauma.

Wood burns in preparation for a sweat lodge on the outskirts of Regina. Many women facing the loss of a loved one have turned to sweat, ceremony, and traditional teachings. “The healing started from that first sweat. I sweat for four days,” said Gwenda Yuzicappi, whose daughter was found dead on Little Black Bear First Nation on May 5, 2008. “I still need all those ceremonies.”

Tanya Sayer, 38, estimates she knows ten Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered, including some of serial killer Robert Pickton’s victims. “I’ve been raped, left on the out- skirts of town, held hostage, been involved in gangs,” said Tanya, who says she was sucked into prostitution in her late teens. “The solution is only through the Creator, you have to want your life back,” she said. “There’s a spiritual sickness that comes from residential schools. It’s this trans-generational trauma… When you sober up, it’s just too painful… [The pain] never goes away. You just have to walk with it.” In many cases, women who have been victims of murder or abuse are in vulnerable life circumstances like Tanya. According to Troy Cooper, who was the police chief of Prince Albert for 13 years until moving to Saskatoon this January, “people take comfort in the idea that [murdered victims are] from a high-risk lifestyle, but sex workers are actually victims.”

Gwenda Yuzicappi and her adopted granddaughter Leslie Maple, 16, are pictured outside of their home on Standing Buffalo First Nation, northeast of Regina. Gwenda’s daughter and Leslie’s caregiver, Amber Redman, went missing in 2005. Her remains were located in Little Black Bear First Nation almost three years later. Two men were involved in Amber’s murder, while only one of them was convicted of second-degree murder. Leslie was only five years old at the time. “Leslie was my strength [when Amber went missing],” Yuzicappi said. “She would soothe me and pet my hair. If it wasn’t for Leslie… I don’t know where I’d be.” This was Leslie’s first time discussing Amber’s murder.

Elder Florence Isaac, 84, in her home in Regina. Up until 1996, the Canadian government placed Indigenous people in “residential schools”— boarding schools meant to take them away from their native culture and assimilate them into Canadian society. As a survivor of one of these institutions, Florence is no stranger to shame and trauma as a result of violence and abuse: “We’ve kept the hurt inside. We’ve packed it, we’ve packed it, we’ve packed it. Now that it’s time to bring it up, it’s shameful,” she said. “I feel sorrow. Justice is not really being served to these women… especially when it’s an Indian… If this was a white, it would be a different story. It’s discrimination. This issue [of missing and murdered women] has been going on for a long time, but as I said, nobody listened.”

Shaniqua McAdam, eight, walks in the cemetery toward the grave of her mother, Krista Kenny, in Prince Albert. Krista was murdered at the age of 16 in May 2009. A 21-year- old, Cody Halkett, beat her to death with a wooden stake. Shaniqua now lives without parents and stays with her grandmother Loretta Henderson. Almost 90 per- cent of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women were parents.

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Marcia Bird, 19; Margaret Bird, 20; Aleisha Charles, 21; and Ariel Charles, 17, of La Ronge, pictured in Prince Albert, while searching for their mother. Some of the daughters had vivid dreams about where their mother might be, and with little police support, instigated a search on their own. In November, the police finally helped organize a search in which around 15 family and community members spent the weekend looking around an area six miles or so north of Prince Albert.

Shayleen Goforth, 28, at Wascana Lake in Regina, where she remembers better times with her sister Kelly Goforth, who was found murdered on September 25, 2013. “I had to forgive [the killer, Clayton Bo Eichler] to feel peace within myself…I was so sick. I went to my Elder, and I had a good sweat and a smudge, and I told God I forgive the man who killed my sister… I believe God changes people, so I really hope he changes Clayton… Kelly was the foundation of our family.”