The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls could be doing more to research cases that stretch back decades.
As the majority of the stories and cases heard over past six months have been recent, historic cases could provide valuable insight into historical attitudes and media portrayals that have led to systemic violence against Indigenous women and girls.
Such stories are important and can offer a unique insight, said Darlene Rose Okemaysim-Sicotte, a Saskatoon-based advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“I think as people witness the hearings whether online or face-to-face, they will see a pattern of abuse as historical experiences,” said Okemaysim-Sicotte.
“It will show where the systemic complacency came from and [how] it’s carried on into today.”
As the sixth public hearing of the inquiry winds up this week in Saskatoon, survivors and family members have shared many emotional and personal stories. The majority have been recent, contemporary cases.
Approximately 40 witnesses in both public and private hearings will be heard by the four commissioners. Walk-in witnesses are accommodated by statement gatherers on site.
The next stop is Thunder Bay, ON in the first week of December.
Indigenous girl found in ditch
Okemaysim-Sicotte said she hopes the inquiry hears about more historic cases so that a bigger picture can emerge.
Cases like that of Alvina Brass, a 12-year-old Indigenous girl from the Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan. Her body was recovered from a water-filled ditch in that community on Nov.1, 1953.
According to the old Winnipeg Free Press article, Brass and a 16-year-old female were given whiskey and wine the night before by two non-Indigenous farmers from the Veregin district, west of Kamsack. Later the pair split up and the 16-year-old female said she witnessed one of the farmers kneel on the ground next to Brass. The farmers then drove off leaving the two girls on the road. Brass, unable to walk, was eventually left alone on the ground.
Regina pathologist Dr. J.D. Stephen said at the time that Brass died from exposure and from the consumption of alcohol. Both Wayne Goulden, 22, and Peter Harshenin, 24, were committed to stand trial for manslaughter at a preliminary hearing.
“Orgy ends in death for Indian girl, 12”, was how her death was headlined at the time.
Stories like Brass’s could demonstrate how the media, police and the justice system has systematically failed families of the missing and murdered, advocates say.
Families should come forward
Alvina Brass’ case is not found in any of current databases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls but can provide valuable insight into historic attitudes towards victims of violence.
According to Myrna LaPlante, a family member from Saskatoon who is on the Inquiry’s National Family Advisory Circle, it is up to families to come to the inquiry and talk about their loved ones.
Okemaysim-Sicotte agreed. She also draws on the cultural and spiritual beliefs some families and communities may have had in the early days as to why we’re not hearing from these family members.
“For someone that has been missing or had been killed that long ago, the protocol was to let them stay at rest if she had been buried in her Indigenous community.”
“Seeing that some of the commissioners.. want an extension, there’ll be opportunities for those historical cases,” says Okemaysim-Sicotte.
Dormant cases not being researched
Whether or not these old cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are being adequately included and investigated at the national hearings or by the inquiry isn’t entirely clear.
The primary mandate for the inquiry is to identify and examine the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women and girls. In their Terms of Reference (ToR), nothing is cited specifically to do with old cases, sometimes referred as “historic” cases.
APTN Investigates asked Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada if any discussions were held during the pre-inquiry process and Valerie Hache, a spokesperson with the department said, “the terms of reference authorize the commission to investigate the circumstances of individual cases, historical or current, in order to identify systemic issues — institutional or otherwise.”
Wendy von Tongeren-Harvey, legal counsel with the Inquiry said in a telephone interview she is unsure if anyone from the inquiry is doing archival research on old cases.
“I’m not doing archival research and I don’t know any members from the legal team that are doing archival research. If anyone is doing it, it is . . . research people and they might be doing a lot of research that ultimately assists with the report at the end,” says von Tongeren-Harvey.
The lawyer said she’s heard first-hand from some family members of cases that go years back.
Shaylen Smith, a spokesperson for the inquiry, said one case so far dates back 50 years.
“There is no time limit on the age of cases that the national inquiry will examine. The only limitation would be whether the records exist,” she added.