(Joan Winning, left, and Isabel Winning leave the Inquiry Monday after speaking to commissioners. Photo: Kathleen Martens/APTN)
When Nicole Daniels was found frozen to death it wasn’t the worse thing that happened to her family, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls heard Monday.
It was how the 16-year-old was treated in death that hurt them more, her aunt Joan Winning told commissioner Michelle Audette.
“Here we are in 2017 and we have no answers,” Winning said, simply because the victim was an ‘Aboriginal person.’”
The grieving family was the first to tell their story as the inquiry opened five days of hearings in Winnipeg Monday.
Nicole’s body was found in a Winnipeg car lot in April 2009.
Winning said the Winnipeg Police Service told them Nicole froze to death, while under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
She said it’s an explanation the family rejects to this day.
“There is a complete disconnect between law enforcement and Aboriginal people,” added her cousin Isabel Winning. “An Indigenous woman is seen as disposable.”
Nicole’s mother hounded police, Winning said, for information about what she believed was a murder.
But she said police told her the case was closed because an autopsy said she froze to death.
“She never got over it,” Joan Winning said of Nicole’s mother, who sank into a deep depression and eventually died.
Nicole was the oldest of six children and the first-born daughter.
She loved music, art, and her sisters. She came from a “good family,” Joan Winning said, and was deeply loved.
Yet the police characterized her as a drunk and a druggie without speaking to family members, Joan said, despite what family told them.
“That was an assumption on their part,” she said. “This was a big problem with the police.”
The family didn’t name him but they told the crowded public hearing room about the 40-something man they say killed Nicole, right down to the name of his neighbourhood and the kind of vehicle he drove.
They say he plied her with booze and pills, sexually assaulted her, and pushed her out of his truck, “like she was disposable.”
“I hope he’s watching wherever you are. He devastated a family. They protected him,” Joan Winning said.
The family told Audette they want the case reopened, and, at the very least, the man charged with abusing a minor.
“These predators picking up our women,” said Joan Winning. “Who knows the number of other victims he’s gotten away with.Is he considered an upstanding citizen in our community?”
They said the police have a bias when it comes to investigating these cases and suggested the inquiry recommend greater education around Indigenous people.
“Bring them to ceremony to see what we as Aboriginal women are,” Isabel Winning said, “to change their minds.”
(Families at the inquiry can hold an eagle feather, or eagle fan above when telling their stories. Photo: Kathleen Martens/APTN)
She said unless that gap is closed police and families will forever be at odds.
“There was no investigation. It was closed right away,” Joan Winning said, noting even Nicole’s missing winter jacket and opened blouse were chalked up to symptoms of hypothermia. “It’s like we were invisible.”
Audette, the former head of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, took time later to look in a large willow basket at her feet where people can leave exhibits. The family had left words to a song Nicole had written.
Watch the story from Brittany Hobson at the Inquiry.
The commissioners sit in leather armchairs opposite family members who hold photos and other remembrances as they share, sometimes fanning themselves with eagle feather fans.
This cultural gulf between police and families isn’t new, and Audette observed it’s becoming a theme.
She told reporters the inquiry’s mandate will allow it to ask all levels and stripes of government – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – what’s working and what isn’t.
Later, Isabel told reporters they had trouble finding information about the inquiry, saying they were confused between the commission and a coalition that represented families in Manitoba.
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