(Frances Neumann, sister-in-law to Mary Johns, speaks during the opening day of the MMIW inquiry)
APTN National News
The long-awaited start to the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls national inquiry began with the story of Mary Johns who was murdered by a serial killer and buried in a potter’s field years before the family ever discovered her fate.
The inquiry lurched its way to Tuesday’s opening hearings after suffering through criticism from the families of the missing and the murdered who said it wasn’t communicating enough and seemed restricted by bureaucrats in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s department, the Office of the Privy Council.
The inquiry plans to hold three days of hearings involving families in the Yukon this week. It will then hold hearings exclusively with experts until the fall when it will again call on families to testify.
The inquiry was created, at the urging of families, by the federal Liberal government and tasked with examining the crisis that leads to the disproportionate number of Indigenous women who die violent deaths, go missing or whose deaths remain unsolved.
“Today is a turning point in our national history,” said lead Commissioner Justice Marion Buller opening the first day of hearings in Whitehorse. “Now there is a national stage for the stories and the voices of the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls through their families.”
And the first story told was of woman, a mother, a residential school survivor, murdered by a serial killer who would preyed on Indigenous women with impunity for years.
Johns left her home in the Yukon for Vancouver in 1975 heartbroken over the crib death of her six month-old child Howard Clifford two years prior. The death of the infant destroyed her marriage. When she went to Vancouver, she left behind another son, Charlie Peter Johns.
For seven years, Mary Johns lived on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside until July 1982 when she was found lying face down on a foam mattress inside a barber shop owned by serial killer Gilbert Paul Jordan.
“There was no justice for my sister-in-law,” said Frances Neumann, during her testimony to the inquiry. “He wasn’t even charged and she was the fourth one to die in this man’s company.”
Jordan was linked to the deaths of 10 women over 20 years and all of them were Indigenous except one. He would entice women with alcohol and coax them with cash to drink until they passed out. He would then pour more alcohol down their throats. Jordan was finally convicted of manslaughter in 1988 and he died in 2006.
Police never found Johns’ family after her death and she was buried in a section of Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery known as a “potter’s field” because it’s reserved for those who died alone and were unclaimed.
Johns’ family never knew what happened to her until 1988 when Neumann, who was living Vancouver, saw her photograph in a newspaper article about missing women. Neumann then contacted the police saying the woman pictured in the newspaper was her sister-in-law.
“So they came out to my home and my husband was with me and they asked me if I had any family photos of Mary and I brought out these pictures that sit before you and we identified Mary through our family pictures with morgue pictures,” said Neumann, during her testimony. “Mary was a young mother, full of life and full of promise. She loved to laugh and when she’d laugh, her whole body would jiggle and everybody would laugh.”
Johns’ only son Charlie Peter never managed to come to grips with the loss of his mother and he died of an overdose in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Neumann implored the inquiry to complete its monumental task.
“Every fiber of my body is shaking to my boots. Please, please see this through. We have come and waited for many years to see the results. Don’t sweep it under the carpet,” said Neumann.