I know what it feels like.
That sentiment was echoed many times Wednesday night in a Regina convention centre as families of missing and murdered Indigenous people addressed the Assembly of First Nations during its annual general assembly.
They know what it feels like to lose a loved one, in often vicious circumstances. To feel ignored by police. To beg for justice. To still wait for it.
While views are mixed, most of the people who addressed the gathering pleaded with the remaining commissioners of the beleaguered federal inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls to step down so that the process could be reset.
The families called for greater input from families, for more communities to be included in the list of hearings, in some cases for the locations of the hearings to be changed to more sacred spaces. Many blamed the federal government for a misguided approach they said reflected a colonial, top down mentality that did not consider what families actually wanted.
“This thing is a mess. It’s a complete mess,” said Chief Ava Hill, of Six Nations, in Ontario, the largest reserve in Canada.
“It is crooked in its roots and needs to be reset to grow in a good way,” added Lillian Ewenin, a councillor at Kawacatoose First Nation, in Saskatchewan.
Here are some other thoughts on the MMIW inquiry shared with the assembly.
Lillian Ewenin, Councillor at Kawacatoose First Nation
“I also speak to you today as a mother. I know what it’s like to lose a child to murder. I’m intimately aware of the injustices and the unfairness that we as indigenous people face in the justice system. My son was murdered in 2015. And his killer will plead guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter and serve a total of four years max. Where’s the justice in that? We all know well that the perpetrators of violence against Indigenous people and especially against our Indigenous women and girl and our two spirited people receive lighter sentences … My sister is also among the far too many women who have gone missing or been murdered. Her body was found outside Calgary in 1982 and remains unsolved. I come from a nation that has lost 9 of our beloved to the missing and violent murders … But our voices have gone unheard. The commissioners have continually dismissed our concerns and responded to us with great disrespect.”
Elder Elmer Courchene
“I know what it feels like. I know the loneliness that you feel. You feel like nobody’s listening to you. Nobody cares. When you talk about two-spirited people, I buried my son. He was two-spirited. It hurt. When I seen him … he hanged himself … [but when I spoke to him earlier] he was happy, and I asked him if everything is ok. He said, ‘yes, dad, I’m ok’ … but something happened, and I don’t know what it is. I still feel it today … a lot of people don’t understand what it feels like.
“I’m a survivor and I know what a colonial system is.”
“I can feel these people and we need to stand behind them. We’ve got no choice, we have to. You don’t know what it feels like when you lose someone that’s very special. Commissioners, I’ll tell you. Listen to the voices you heard today. If they’re asking you to step down, think about it and honour it. It’s not easy. But maybe there’s other ways that you can help them. Even outside of the process … I’m a survivor and I know what a colonial system is … I’ve lived it and it hurt to be treated and looked down as a nobody. Because that’s what colonial system does to us, it creates a lot of ill-feeling on beautiful people like us.”
Sheila North Wilson, Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak
“We need a hard reset … we want a national body that supports the families, we don’t want a national body that supports the federal government … I’m endorsing the resolution that’s coming from our region for a hard rest and a regional process and a call for resignation of the commissioners.”
“I couldn’t understand why. Why would a man or men, why would men take my daughter. Why would they rape her, beat her up. She’s pleading for her life. They didn’t listen to her. She told them that she wouldn’t say anything if they let her go. They didn’t listen to her. Only 26 percent of her remains were found. Two years and 10 months later. The First Nations community that her remains were located was only 55 kilometres away from my home. 55 kilometres. After they raped her and beat her and raped her and beat her again and raped her and beat her and broke her jaw, they stabbed her in the back of her head and that’s what finally took her life. My daughter was a survivor, she was a fighter … She did everything she could, every strength she had in her body, she fought for her life.”
Betty Ann Smith
“I had a daughter, I have five daughters and two sons. With the amount of children that I had, that one loss really got to the rest of my children. It was really hard to keep them together and acknowledge what happened to their sister … Victoria was 21 years old … like the rest of the mothers in here … I was really upset when they didn’t believe me. I pushed, I fought, I did everything just to get focused on. And that’s what I encourage these women to do. You gotta have a good voice to speak out. Yes, I too cried the way they do. My daughter was raped, murdered, and he broke her neck. Picked her up and just slammed her and broke her neck. I don’t call that a gentleman. Now that the ordeal is 15 years old, I can give that gift to these women. The hope, the prayers … that’s the only answer that I have for you.”
Kevin Hart, AFN Manitoba regional Chief
“I’m sick and tired of the B.S. that goes on about us being marginalized … I made a commitment, I’m willing to die for those women and girls out there … Enough is enough. It breaks my heart that this room is almost empty now … These families they need us. They need us now more than ever. And we can’t let them down… I’ve had enough, have you had enough? We must protect our women and girls at all cost. Us as the men. It’s our responsibility to look after our women and girls and our children. Taking direction from our women and our grandmothers.
“I’m tired of seeing these families suffer.”
“I’ll not stand to listen how law enforcement, government officials and everybody are not under these terms of reference … where’s the accountability for that, where’s the justice for those families? I’m tired of seeing these families suffer. I know how it is to feel the hurt of losing a child. I know how it is to feel the hurt of losing a loved one to homicide. And we all in this room know how small our communities are, and the interconnection that we all have to one another as brothers and sisters. We have to be united more than ever.”
Michèle Audette, commissioner of the MMIW inquiry
For me, what I want to see, what I want to see is what you’re going to vote tomorrow. It’s democracy, it’s your right, and I will respect your decision. I will still love you because I have a big heart and no matter what’s going to happen the next day for me, I’m still going to advocate for justice, equity and making sure my girls … can walk in a place we call Canada, in a safe environment. And for police, RCMP … we have the power to bring and say to them give us those files, we want to understand what went wrong, we want to understand why the investigation over here was different over here compared to a Canadian woman … I don’t think right now we are failing, we are trying. We’re not perfect, I said it, I’ll repeat again.
With files from Rachel Browne