Children for sale, women gone missing, and bodies dumped in rivers – these are some of the crimes commissioners probing an epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and girls will hear about at the national inquiry in Winnipeg Oct 16-20.
“They would throw beer bottles and rocks and water at us driving by in the north end of Winnipeg,” recalled Alaya McIvor, a survivor of sex trafficking.
“I didn’t know how to love, I didn’t know how to love myself, I didn’t know how to trust. I had so much trauma,” she said.
McIvor plans to share her 20-year story of addiction and exploitation in the public room of the hearing. Organizers said there is also a private room.
“We are registered,” confirmed Willie Starr, the brother of Jennifer Catcheway, who went missing from Grand Rapids, Man., in 2008 and still hasn’t been found.
“We’re uncertain if we’re doing it in public but we will be there.”
It’s the third stop for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls that began in September 2016.
It promises to be a tense one.
Not only for what the four remaining commissioners will hear from survivors and family members but for their own future.
Pressure to disband the commission is growing every day amid complaints it has lost its way.
“We don’t understand what they’re trying to do,” said Sue Caribou of Winnipeg, who has lost nine members of her extended family to crime.
“They’re not communicating clearly. We’re stuck in the middle. Families are on the sidelines.”
Caribou doesn’t want any more pain.
“I’m frustrated how the inquiry is not explaining to the families what’s going on,” she said. “How come we’re not included?”
The inquiry fulfills an election promise for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after his predecessor Stephen Harper rejected the idea of holding an inquiry.
Commissioners were appointed and tasked with delivering an interim report in November 2017 and a list of non-binding recommendations in December 2018.
They were given $53.8-million to do the job but with a promise that more would be available if needed.
Confidence in their abilities is waning as staffers, including one of the commissioners, continue to resign.
The commission recently lost its lead counsel.
APTN News has counted 16 departures so far.
“It is a dysfunctional organization that lacks leadership and planning,” said Sue Montgomery, a senior communications adviser to the inquiry that resigned in May.
“They spend all their time on conference calls, make a plan, then scrap it.”
A new executive director from Manitoba was hired Oct. 6.
That was one of the demands of the Manitoba MMIWG Coalition.
Another is for chief commissioner Marion Buller to step down.
“Families and survivors of MMIWG are the ones who brought the issue to the forefront and it should be them who feel ownership of the national inquiry, not just the commissioners,” explained Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North, who has also called for a “hard reset.”
“A re-set would signify to many families and survivors that the process is truly theirs, not just a few.”
(Sue Caribou said she isn’t sure if she’ll go before the inquiry to tell her story. Photo: Kathleen Martens/APTN)
The controversy seemed to be putting more stress on families.
“I wish I could be there to support them,” said Darlene Jack of B.C., who described a huge weight lift after she shared the story of her missing sister’s family at the hearings in Smithers.
She wanted as many grieving people as possible to experience that relief for themselves.
“I didn’t believe in the inquiry at first,” she said. “But I felt listened to and respected in Smithers. So I say, ‘give it a chance.’”
MKO said there are 300 missing or murdered women and girls from Manitoba.
The RCMP say there are an estimated 1,200 cases across the country.
The need for an inquiry galvanized after the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine surfaced in the Red River in August 2014.
Fontaine’s great-aunt Thelma Favel planned to meet with commissioners in Winnipeg but doesn’t plan to say too much.
“I was going to go but the Crown attorney is concerned with the trial coming up,” said Favel. “I can say limited things about Tina and that’s it in public.”
She said jury selection for the second-degree murder trial is scheduled for November and she’s starting to try and get ready.
“Preparing for the trial is really, really hard right now,” she said. “I’m doing ceremonies and going to church. I’ll be the first witness for the prosecution.”
Favel wants to see how the inquiry works for herself. And be there to support other families.
“I just don’t know how they plan on stopping it – these killings of our girls,” she said. “I never really did (have confidence in it) but I agreed to go because of Tina’s case being such a high-profile case. I’m going to do it for her.”
Caribou is still undecided about whether to speak at the inquiry.
Bernadette Smith on the other hand, whose sister Claudette Osborne-Tyo went missing in Winnipeg in 2008, won’t be there.
“We haven’t registered for this round,” Smith said. “We’re going to see what’s going on. We might decide to do it later.”
That’s the way it was at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Some former students of Canada’s notorious Indian residential school system didn’t share their stories because they just weren’t ready.
“There are lots of families here so they’ll have to come back,” said Smith, who is now an NDP-MLA in Winnipeg. “We may do it then.”
Commissioners will hear very different stories than were shared with them in Smithers and the first hearing in Whitehorse.
In Winnipeg, everything from outlaw street gangs to foster care to drug addiction are factors in some of the missing and murdered cases.
McIvor said Winnipeg is “a hub” for sex trafficking, which is also known as forced prostitution and sex-related work, often in hotel rooms.
It’s something in which officials say Indigenous victims are vastly overrepresented.
Public Safety Canada calls them the “population most vulnerable to exploitation.”
McIvor said she was first exploited at age 12 and plans to tell commissioners why it took 20 years to make a clean break.
She now works with victims at Sage House, a street women’s health and outreach centre.
“I was a child in need of protection. And I didn’t get it,” she said.
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