The first day of the Membertou hearings of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls heard emotional testimony from the family of Loretta Saunders, an Inuk murdered in 2014 over rent money.
With family sitting beside him her father said Canada should consider imposing the death penalty on killers of Indigenous women.
“They were cowardly, cold-blooded murderers,” Clayton Saunders told Commissioner Qajaq Robinson Monday.
Loretta Saunders was a 26-year old university student in Halifax when she was murdered.
“What a mess this country is in. Men murder women – pregnant women…They should be charged with a double murder. I really do think Canada should have the death penalty,” he said.
Watch Tom Fennario’s story from the Membertou hearings here:
The Saunders family shared gut-wrenching testimony at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Loretta’s father, mother, and sisters took turns talking about the impact of losing the mother-to-be, who was attending Saint Mary’s University and writing a thesis on the subject of MMIWG.
“She didn’t just pick stuff out of books…newspaper clippings and all that,” Clayton said. “She really had interviews with people – real live people – she interviewed them.
“Her professor said it was the longest thesis he ever had and one of the best-written ones.”
Loretta, who was pregnant when she was killed, wanted to be a mother, a lawyer, and help her people, said her sister Delilah.
“We wanted a better life than we grew up in,” she said of a childhood in Labrador marked by poverty, abuse and the legacy of residential school.
“Near the end of her life when she was working on her thesis she began digging into those difficult things.”
It was the first hearing for the inquiry on a First Nation.
Watch Clayton Saunders at the Membertou hearings Monday:
A spokesperson said 110 people had registered to present their evidence between Monday and Wednesday at a combination of public and private meetings.
“This might be something hard for you to hear,” added Clayton, “the killings are not going to stop. This is going to keep on going no matter how hard you try to make it and fix it and all that.
“These killers, they’re going to go on, they’re not going to stop. They’re going to go on: girl after girl after girl will be murdered unless you got really, really tougher penalties.”
It’s an idea supported by Liberal Senator Lillian Dyck of Saskatchewan, whose Act to amend the Criminal Code with stiffer penalties for violence against Aboriginal women, has received three readings.
Bill S-215 has been passed by the Senate but could die as it awaits debate by Parliament.
Robinson, a lawyer in Ottawa, asked for a copy of Loretta Saunders’ thesis, which her father said had advice for police and justice officials.
The family criticized the police handling of their case, as other families have done at previous hearings in Whitehorse, Smithers, B.C., and Winnipeg.
Mother Miriam Saunders said the disappearance of her ‘white-passing’ daughter garnered major attention but fell off once Loretta was identified as Inuk.
Onlookers gasped when Delilah Saunders said she learned the case of her missing sister was considered a homicide in a text from a journalist in Toronto.
“I still had it very much in my mind we were going to find Loretta,” she said. “While a part of me, knowing the research that she was doing the stories we talked about and everything, knew it was unlikely. The logical part of me knew it was unlikely.
“But I thought she’d find a way because that was my sister, that was my best friend.”
Then the text arrived and Delilah was devastated.
“That’s how I found out my sister was murdered…we were just around the corner from meeting with the detectives.”
As other family members in other cities have testified, there was a lack of mental health support after the crime, especially of a culturally appropriate nature.
Delilah Saunders said a counsellor recommended by victim services acted inappropriately with her by commenting on sister Loretta’s looks and putting his hand on her knee.
“Losing her we lost a huge part of our family…it broke down in many ways. She had a very important role in our family; she was very supportive of every one of us.”
Delilah Saunders said the family is lucky compared to others, in that they received a measure of justice, being able to bury Loretta and see the killers sentenced to prison.
“There are families out there that don’t receive the same level of justice and that’s something that Loretta made sure I was aware of that. Because she was very aware of that,” she said.
In separate testimony, activist Rebecca Moore said she feels at risk simply as an Indigenous woman walking down the street in Halifax.
The Mi’kmaq woman from Pictou Landing said the danger escalated after she demonstrated against the statue of Edward Cornwallis in a downtown park last summer.
The media “called us violent and hostile,” she told Commissioner Michele Audette. They “villainized us.”
Tempers flared and Moore said the mayor didn’t take threats against her and other women who wanted the statue gone seriously.
They said the monument tells a one-sided story of someone who called for ‘scalping’ Indigenous people.
She said some protesters received death threats when their workplaces were being made public online.
“We’ve been targeted for further violence,” Moore said, noting being involved publicly puts Indigenous women at further risk.
But Audette urged her to continue speaking out and participating in environmental demonstrations despite the push back.
“I don’t think it’s acceptable at all. I hope every level of government including the municipality sees how Indigenous people are everywhere. We are everywhere.”
Audette also asked for a copy of the scalping proclamation from 1749.