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How Indian Status Figures Into the Unsolved Case of a Murdered Aboriginal Woman

Sonya Cywink died without an aboriginal name or official Indian status. But her story is very much a part of the 1,200 murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada.

In the summer of 1998, Mag Cywink, her husband Tom, and a medicine man from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, travelled to southern Ontario. The purpose of their trip was to release two spirits: the spirit of Mag's sister Sonya and the spirit of Sonya's unborn child.

Hundreds of friends and family had gathered amid the greenery of Southwold Earthworks, a 40-minute drive southwest of London. Four years earlier, Sonya's body had been found in that exact spot. They were about to perform the ancient ceremony when the medicine man, Floyd Looks for Buffalo Hand, turned to Mag and asked, "What is her Indian name? Does she have an Indian name?"

"No," Mag told him, Sonya didn't.

He paused, then told Mag: "I'm going to give her a name."

He thought for a few moments.

He gave Sonya a name from the Lakota tribe, into which Tom had been adopted. Mag can no longer remember the Lakota version, she's since had it translated into Ojibway: "Biiskwaa-noodin-kwe."

It means, "Whirlwind Woman," Floyd told Mag—like a column of air swirling dust or snow or rain; like a tornado. He said, "Whenever you see that, you'll know that Sonya's bringing a message."

For an aboriginal person in Canada, status is significant. It gives those with it access to numerous federal programs and services. Yet the designation is not an indigenous concept—it's a construct of the federal government. And the rules that govern this construct are complex.

Sonya's vamps for the commemorative art installation for the missing and murdered women of Canada and the USA. All photos courtesy of Mag Cywink

The federal government has a responsibility to status Indians under the Indian Act, as well as a responsibility to Inuit people. The Supreme Court will hear an appeal this fall on a long-running court battle about whether Métis and non-status Indians are legally "Indians" and therefore have the same rights as the Inuit and status Indians.

In Mag and Sonya's family, their father had no status, their mother had status but lost it, and Mag and Sonya and their brothers and sisters never had status at all.

"Your status as an Indian, according to the federal government now, acts very much like a proxy for traditional membership in an aboriginal community, even though it shouldn't," says Larry Chartrand, a Métis law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in issues of indigenous identity. "If you don't have status, it's often assumed then that you're not Indian enough to be part of the community, and that can have pretty devastating impacts."

Without status, Chartrand says, "You can't live on the reserve anymore; you can't participate in community decision-making or benefits. It means more than just losing status or being discriminated; it's actually a loss of culture and way of life."

Sonya in 1989, five years before her death

A First Nations woman used to lose her status if she married a man without status. What's more, any First Nations person, male or female, used to lose status by earning a university degree, becoming a doctor or lawyer, joining the army, or—until 1960—registering to vote in a federal election.

Bill C-31, which amended the Indian Act in 1985, solved some troubling, automatic loss-of-status problems, but did so by categorizing First Nations persons as either non-status, status 6(1), or status 6(2). This change discriminated against women because status was still more easily passed down by men than by women.

Women with reinstated status were 6(1), but their children were 6(2). In comparison, men with status who married non-status women could confer their status—6(1) or 6(2), as applicable—on their wives, whether these women were aboriginal or not, and this made their children 6(1). Thus, women who choose to "marry out" have fewer entitlements than men who do so—and this disparity extends to the children of such unions.

This injustice was more recently addressed when a legal battle led to Bill C-3, the government's attempt to remedy Bill C-31's inherent sexism. But even that change, many say, is problematic. The implications of losing and regaining status remain severe, Chartrand says. A number of communities have waged court battles to prevent those with regained status from returning to their communities.

Southwold Earthworks, where Sonya's body was found, as pictured in August 2014, on the 20th anniversary of her death.

Estelle Ruth McGregor, Mag and Sonya's mother, was a member of Whitefish River First Nation and a status Indian. However, Estelle—of mostly Ojibway ancestry, with a little Scottish mixed in—lost her status in the summer of 1949, when she married Wilfred Laurier Cywink, Sr. Wilfred's mother was Ojibway and Odawa with status, but his father was Polish, so when they married Wilfred's mother lost her status too.

Thus, when Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink was born in Little Current on Manitoulin Island on August 19, 1963, she—like her siblings—entered the world without status. The children grew up in Whitefish River First Nation, but not really in Whitefish River First Nation. They lived there, but only because it was a plot leased by the Canadian Pacific Railway, Wilfred's employers. Among other things, their lack of status meant that they had to acquire their educations off the reserve: they had to be bussed daily to and from school in Espanola, roughly 30 minutes away.

With her children's options limited, Estelle taught them assimilative techniques: the family spoke English at home, while the children acquired just enough Ojibway to understand their mother's commands. Estelle continually impressed upon them the importance of getting educated and then building a life, being a productive member of society—elsewhere. Both Estelle and Wilfred worked hard to make sure their kids were educated and ambitious. Often that meant boisterous debates over the dinner table.

An undated photo of Sonya as an adult

Sonya was both smart and driven. She was also attentive and kind to all she knew. However, she was sexually assaulted as a teenager, and after this trauma, she began to struggle greatly. Sonya got pregnant, dropped out of high school, and gave birth to a baby boy. The boy was adopted by a relative, as is traditional in such situations. After the adoption, Sonya used drugs and alcohol to cope, and in the years before she was killed turned to sex work.

Yet Sonya could still summon her drive. In February 1991, Mag drove Sonya to a treatment facility in London. She dropped her little sister off to get clean, and Sonya did. Sonya would remain in London until her death, attending both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. She was a struggling young woman making a concerted effort to regain control of her life.

But Sonya was also "the great eluder," Mag says. She'd put on a smile, she'd laugh, and she'd make you think everything was alright, that she was alright, that you didn't need to worry.

Southwold Earthworks, where Sonya's body was found, as pictured in August 2014, on the 20th anniversary of her death.

The last time Mag saw her sister was July 1994. Mag and Tom held an informal family reunion at the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre in Espanola. Sonya made the six-hour trip from London. Mag remembers her sister as looking gaunt and sick. That night, she could hear Sonya's seemingly endless coughing through the apartment's thin walls.

"None of us even got it. None of us even—we didn't even—I don't think anybody gave it any thought that she was that sick," Mag says. "It should have been the first sign, the last sign, for us to realize something wasn't right."

Mag thinks Sonya must have fallen back in with the wrong crowd, that she must have started using drugs again. But what exactly happened between the day of their reunion and the day Sonya's body was found, her family doesn't know. Mag says she only learned Sonya was pregnant from her sister's friends at Sonya's funeral. She's named her unborn niece or nephew, Jacob, in the hopes justice—when it comes—might be for both Sonya and her child.

Mag says she was told her sister died from blunt force trauma, but a spokesperson for the Ontario Provincial Police says investigators have no plans to release Sonya's cause of death or to publicly identify any suspects. Last summer, on the 20th anniversary of Sonya's disappearance, a $60,000 reward for information was renewed; $10,000 of which comes from Mag and Tom.

The case remains unsolved.

Part 2, tomorrow: Despite her sister's death, Mag Cywink has taken a stand against a national inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women. It is not a popular position.

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