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How Violence Continues to Plague the Family of One Murdered Ontario Aboriginal Woman

Charity Keesic was beaten to death by the 16-year-old son of a family friend. Now her mother is trying to break the cycle of male violence within her community.

by Jane Gerster
Feb 8 2016, 5:30pm

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Ronald Reagan was president, Pierre Elliott Trudeau was prime minister, and the world was eagerly awaiting the release of Return of the Jedi when Charity Keesic came into the world. It was June 23, 1982, precisely two days after the birth of Prince William—a fact carefully noted in her baby book alongside other snapshots (Trudeau, Reagan, Star Wars) of life as it was. As the world feted the arrival of the new prince, Murray and Leona Keesic welcomed Charity at the Moose Factory hospital in Northern Ontario. She was their first child: a sweet-natured little girl, seven pounds and six ounces, with dark, fuzzy hair and chubby cheeks.

Charity was born in Moose Factory, a community in Ontario, but would later live in Winnipeg and Pickle Lake before ultimately returning to the place of her birth. She became a big sister twice over: first to Joshua and then to Vincent. She was happy, close with her parents, and protective and encouraging of her younger brothers. She had friends and was also a bit of a daredevil: For her, the highlight of one family road trip to Southern Ontario was riding roller coasters.

As she grew up, Charity would return to her baby book at irregular intervals to adorn it. The oldest example is her signature in stilted, careful handwriting, followed by a note: "I did this when I was 9 years old." At 15, Charity added a second signature in more elaborate, practiced cursive. She added a third and final signature at age 17, in 1999, the year her son was born.

That year, Charity dropped out of school to care for her baby boy. She planned to return when he was old enough for daycare. But in August 2001, months after her son's second birthday and shortly after her 19th birthday, Charity was found raped and murdered—beaten to death—on the shore of the Moose River.

Charity with her father as a baby. Photo courtesy of Charity's family

The identity of Charity's killer is protected by the courts because he was just 16 at the time. (His youth probably also accounts for the length of his sentence—only seven years, according to Leona.) But Leona knows him: He's the son of a once-close family friend.

For a while after Charity's death, Leona kept in touch with the boy's mother. She says her friends have a theory of why she kept the lines of communication open so long. "You were in shock," they tell her.

But one day, Leona just stopped, cutting off all communication. And her shock has given way to a hunger for justice. She wants a harsher sentence for Charity's killer. "We have a grandson who has no mom. We have two sons who have no sister. My husband and I lost a daughter. And what does he get? Just seven years in jail, that's it," Leona says. "That's not enough."

Murray and Leona Keesic with their newborn daughter, Charity. Photo courtesy of Charity's family

It's been over a decade since Charity's 16-year-old killer was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. Despite his short sentence, to Leona's knowledge, he is still incarcerated, although she does not know why. The Youth Criminal Justice Act prevents the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General from speaking about the case, according to a spokesman, whether it is the length of the killer's sentence or whether he is still incarcerated and why.

But during that time, the number of indigenous people imprisoned alongside him has increased.

Howard Sapers is Canada's correctional investigator. In his 2013/2014 annual report, he noted that roughly 80 percent of indigenous offenders are not released until their statutory release date, meaning they're spending more time behind bars and less time being supervised within their communities.

He also wrote that the number of indigenous people incarcerated in federal prisons jumped by 47.4 percent since 2005. During the same interval, the overall prison population increased only 17.5 percent.

Sapers has been blunt in his assessment of why aboriginal people make up a disproportionate number of prison inmates, calling it a result of "systemic discrimination."

Simply putting someone in jail, says Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), "really does very little to change the behavior, because the behaviors are there as a result of that legacy of trauma, of residential schools, of whatever past experiences they've had."

Leona Keesic looks through old photo albums of her daughter Charity in Ears Falls, Ontario. Photo by the author

Leona understands this legacy well. She herself is a survivor of Canada's residential school system. She survived a system that was designed to assimilate her—and more than 150,000 other First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children—into Canadian society by removing them from their families and communities, isolating them from their language, culture, and traditions, and placing them in schools where many of them were abused emotionally, physically, and/or sexually. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has deemed this system a form of "cultural genocide."

All three of Leona's children knew she went to residential school, she says, but she didn't feel prepared to talk about it, and they never questioned her about it, so that was that.

But it's important, she says now, that people know what happened. It's important that native studies courses be created or expanded to provide detailed information about the old residential schools, and about what some have labeled its modern-day equivalent: the child welfare system.

Leona thinks about this when she thinks about the 16-year-old boy who killed Charity, and about the other boys and men who kill.

"This guy kills somebody. His parents didn't do right raising him and his parents live in this community. Maybe this community didn't help them. And then you go back because they're from this reserve, and they don't get enough funding from the government, you know?"

People need to learn the history, Leona says, the connections, and the impacts.

Sylvia Maracle, the longtime executive director of the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centers and Mohawk from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, puts it simply: "Children learn what they live."

"We didn't learn affection," she says. "We didn't learn a good touch, we learned not to talk about things right, to stuff them down, to not feel them. For me, those are all learned kinds of violence."

It's a point the first report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hammers home: There is an intergenerational legacy of residential schools.

"It should not be surprising that those who experienced and witnessed very serious violence against aboriginal children in the schools frequently became accustomed to violence in later life," it reads.

And then it continues: "Governments in Canada spend billions of dollars each year in responding to the systems of the intergenerational trauma of residential schools. Most of this money is spent on crisis interventions related to child welfare, family violence, ill health, and crime... Only a real commitment to reconciliation will reverse the trend and lay the foundation for a truly just and equitable nation."

Charity as a young girl. Photo courtesy of Charity's family

Leona left Moose Factory in 2003.

"I always thought that since we were living on a reserve that it was the safest place to raise a family," Leona would later write. Although the reports from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) on the epidemic don't mention murders or disappearances on reserve versus off reserve, NWAC's 2010 fact sheet notes that while resources are very much needed on reserves and in rural communities, most of the cases of missing and murdered indigenous women occur in urban areas.

For two years after Charity's death, Leona and Murray remained in Moose Factory, raising their boys and their grandson. But in such a small community, the repercussions of a violent act are inescapable.

Moose Factory is home to fewer than 3,000 people, located on an island near the mouth of James Bay. Members of the Moose Cree First Nation comprise the majority of Moose Factory's population.

Leona felt "lost and lonely" amid the shocked support of her friends and neighbors, who when she went out would pepper her with questions like, "How are you feeling?"

Leona came to feel removed from her own life, as if she was living in a bad dream. So in 2003, she moved her family west to Red Lake, Ontario, where Murray had family.

In Red Lake, people didn't recognize Leona as the woman whose daughter had been murdered. She could walk down the road or sit for a cup of coffee without anyone politely inquiring as to how she was coping with her loss.

Red Lake is also a larger town—it has more than 4,000 residents—and larger towns usually enjoy better support options. In Red Lake, Leona found and joined an aboriginal healing and wellness program, where she met with other mothers who had lost children. There, she says, her healing really began. Leona also obtained counseling through her employer, and she learned to handle stress and panic attacks.

She's only been back to Moose Factory for funerals.

On the road to Ears Falls, Ontario, where Leona now lives. Photo by the author

It is not only the victims of violence who need healing, but also the perpetrators. As Sylvia Maracle observes, work is being done to help indigenous men become reoriented, to unlearn the harmful behaviors—some of which, she believes, stem from indigenous people adopting a "limited notion of gender, instead of a continuum of gender expression."

The forthcoming national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women can open up national conversations into the multitude of other issues: poverty, racism, the child welfare system, and more. At the same time, Maracle says, work separate from politics continues to have an impact. It just needs more support.

The Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres has a program called Kizhaay Anishinaabe Niin—an Ojibway phrase that translates to "I Am A Kind Man." It puts the onus on indigenous men to make change, by educating them about traditional teachings in order to help them and to encourage them to challenge abuse when they encounter it.

"Men are hungry for this," Maracle says of the program, which is expanding to Alberta and British Columbia. "They really want to do it."

But unlearning takes time. As does undoing centuries of oppression, says Lavell-Harvard of NWAC. More than three centuries have passed since the Hudson's Bay Company established its second North American outpost in Moose Factory, making it Ontario's oldest English-speaking settlement, altering life for the indigenous people who were there before the Europeans came, and are still there today.

"You can't undo generations of oppression and abuse in six months or even three or four years," Lavell-Harvard says. "It's going to probably go through several successive government terms because we're talking hundreds of years of oppression and abuse and poverty."

Leona with her daughter Charity. Photo courtesy of Charity's family

In 2008, Leona and Murray separated, but a year later the whole family moved to Thunder Bay. There, she connected with families of, and advocates for, missing and murdered indigenous women across the country. There, too, she became aware of the gendered violence that indigenous women in Canada face on a daily basis: more likely to be sexually abused as a child; more likely to be a victim of domestic violence; less likely to report being the victim of a crime (domestic abuse in particular); more likely to be assaulted or sexually assaulted before being killed.

In 2012, Murray was robbed and beaten. He died as a result of his injuries. Leona, her sons, and her grandson have since moved to Ear Falls with her partner, a town less than an hour south of Red Lake. Leona wants the best for all three boys. She wants them to be educated. She wants them to do "something positive."

"That's all I want for them," she says. But after everything the family has been through, she won't force them out of her home to help them achieve it, no matter how old they get. "I just don't have the heart to," she says.

Aside from the counseling Leona still receives, the family members have only each other to lean on. In remote and rural areas, support can be hard to come by.

Lavell-Harvard says that people need to remember these service gaps when they make comments about rural victims of violence such as, "Well, why didn't she just go to the shelter?" This is why she thinks it's vital for the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women to be geographically inclusive.

"People don't realize just how isolated some of our rural and some of our really remote communities are," she says. Or that a big part of helping those communities living with trauma "is making sure that the justice system is about justice... and unfortunately it's not, it's just about punishment."

Maracle adds: "I think we can have conversations with respect to how do we as a society look at [colonialism, the Indian Act, poverty, the child welfare system], how do we educate better, how to be more sensitive, how the system's changed. I think there are lots of discussions that can occur that will lead us, like we're dropping a pebble in a pond and those ripples are going out."

That's Leona, dropping her pebble. Since starting to heal, she's found her voice. She goes to events, gives speeches, and posts articles and media about indigenous women online in the hopes of raising awareness among her more rural friends. She has been challenged by ambivalent or outright hostile governments, by communities lacking proper support, and by a public that often vacillates between indifference and racism. But she is determined now to struggle, to keep the discussion going, to send those ripples out.

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