MEMBERTOU, N.S. — A Mi’kmaq activist said she felt the presence of missing and murdered Indigenous women as families gathered in Nova Scotia for this week’s community hearings, and their stories of loss deserve to be told.
Cheryl Maloney said she sensed a “healing energy” in the air during Sunday’s opening ceremonies ahead of the three-days of hearings by the inquiry looking into the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls. The hearings are being held at Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton.
“The purpose of the … ceremonies is to honour the women and the ancestors that are coming here for this truth,” said Maloney. “A lot of people are feeling the presence of the missing and murdered women.”
The president of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association is among 40 witnesses who are expected to testify at the hearings, which kick off on Monday.
Many of those gathering to testify participated in a community feast on Sunday evening that included drumming, dancing and singing.
Catherine Martin, a Mi’kmaq filmmaker and storyteller, said during the ceremonies she’s been inspired by the efforts by aboriginal women to bring the stories of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls to light.
“The strength of these women has inspiring to me. … It’s a commitment to bring these women back to where they should be, a place of honour, a sacred place.”
Maloney said she and other community members are working to “back up” Indigenous women and families as they prepare to share their traumatic stories with the inquiry, which has been criticized for lacking such emotional supports.
The inquiry has been dogged by controversy, including delays and a high-profile resignation, prompting some groups to call for a restart.
Maloney echoed concerns that have been raised in recent months, but said the inquiry should nevertheless push ahead.
“We can’t be very critical … We have to do what we can to make things work,” she said. “It’s not just the families. This is the stories of the life and death of missing and murdered Indigenous women that we’re talking about.”
Maloney said she has lost sleep in anticipation of her testimony before the commissioners on Tuesday, where she will speak on behalf of the family of Victoria Rose Paul of Indian Brook, N.S.
The 44-year-old woman died in 2009 after suffering a stroke while in jail for public intoxication.
A review of the Truro, N.S., police’s handling of the incident found that officers did not properly monitor Paul’s health while she was in custody. It also said she was incoherent and left lying on the cement floor of the lockup for four hours in her own urine.
The commission is also expected to hear from the family of murdered Innu student Loretta Saunders.
The 26-year-old’s body was found on the side of a New Brunswick highway in February 2014.
Miriam Saunders said outside the conference area that she hoped to spread the message about the need for improved social services for indigenous women.
“The reason I chose Nova Scotia is that my daughter was murdered here and here is where I feel all my supports are,” she said in an interview the night before the hearings began.
“I’d like to talk about the way my people are being treated. There are many ways they’re being mistreated through different organizations including social services, child welfare. I can see why they’re getting murdered because there’s no supports in our community to help them be stronger people,” she said.
The inquiry has visited three communities across Canada prior to this week’s hearings: Whitehorse, Smithers B.C., and Winnipeg.
An interim report is set to be released on Nov. 1.
— Story by Adina Bresge in Halifax, with files from Michael Tutton.
The Canadian Press