By Stephanie Joe
The Calgary hearings of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls came to a close Friday June 1, but the work of the inquiry is ongoing.
Three panels consisting of 10 witnesses were held throughout the week on the topic of government services as part of the inquiry’s institutional hearings. Cross examination of the final panel took place Friday.
There were 14 parties, including the commission counsel, that cross-examined panel number three witnesses, which consisted of shelters and safe transition house workers.
Sarah Beamish, agent for Lisa D. Weber of Weber Law, legal counsel for the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women, was the first party to begin the cross examination. She brought the horrific case involving Cindy Gladue to the attention of the witnesses.
Gladue was brutally murdered in 2011 in a motel on the Yellowhead Highway. She bled to death as a result of an 11-centimetre cut to her vagina. The individual accused of murdering Gladue was acquitted following a trial by jury, said Beamish.
During the trial, an application was made to tender her preserved pelvis and reproductive organs as evidence. The presiding justice allowed the application resulting in the presentation of Miss Gladue’s body tissue in the courtroom.
Justice Graesser concluded that the photographs of Gladue’s severed body parts were too “graphic and unpleasant to view,” therefore, after his analysis, the judge decided that Gladue’s actual body parts could be presented as evidence in the trial, Beamish recounted.
“This issue has been paramount in some of the advocacy work that we have done, provincially,” said Josie Nepinak, executive director of Awo Taan Healing Lodge Society, one of the witnesses on Friday’s panel. The horrific manner in which Gladue’s body parts were used in the trial “has sent a message to Indigenous women—Who you are as a whole person does not matter.”
Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal and another witness on the panel, said the people of Six Nations in Ontario had a strong reaction to this case and the women had gathered to protest.
“I believe it was a complete violation, exploitation of Indigenous women, an exploitation of Miss Gladue’s body, and a violation of our sacred beliefs around how we are to treat our bodies after deceased,” said Nakuset.
Erica Beaudin of Regina Treaty Status Indian Services asked how the voices of women and children can be included in the criteria for funding in shelters and healing lodges.
“I like the narrative approach,” said Sandra Montour, a witness from the Board of Directors of Aboriginal Shelters of Ontario. “I really like the idea of rather than writing the reports, I like to hear from the people themselves.”
Montour’s shelter conducts its own internal review and she has the opportunity to sit with the people who use her shelter and ask what they can do to improve their services.
She went on to say that she believes in program sharing with other First Nations communities.
“I want to know what’s successful in their territory, so I can do it in mine,” said Montour. “I really like the idea of us taking the time to network with each other and support each other.
“We can’t do this work alone. We just can’t.”
Virginia Lomax of the Native Women’s Association of Canada confessed that she was not completely comfortable cross-examining Friday’s witnesses because “you are all the solution,” she said.
“You and your work are the solution and I wish I could be cross-examining the barrier and the problem, but today I am not,” said Lomax. Instead, she gave her time to the witnesses and asked if they had any questions or issues they would like answered or addressed on the public record.
“I don’t mean to cause any harm by asking this question,” she added. “I just want to give you time for your truth.”
Witness Nepinak started by noting chronic underfunding and the need to develop more safe housing for First Nations families.
“I’d like to see the Elders as an essential component to any funding model,” said Nepinak.
Next, she tackled the justice system and asked for respect, equity, and fairness in the treatment of Indigenous women.
“For example, I’d like to mention Judge Queen’s Bench Graesser, who on the Gladue case conducted himself in an unacceptable way where he referred to Miss Gladue as ‘that prostitute’ or ‘that Native girl’,” said Nepinak. “I believe he should be reviewed by the Judicial Council of Canada.”
Nepinak recommended the judicial system hire more Indigenous judges who have related lived experiences and “lawyers who can represent us in a fair and equitable way with respect and dignity in the court houses.”
Montour agreed there needed to be more funding in northern communities. She said that Ontario shelters are funded by multiple government ministries.
“Every shelter should have that opportunity to be core funded by ministries,” she said. “We should not have any waitlists.
“I spend so much of my time looking and begging for money.”
Montour said some of her staff members have been working with her for 20 years and are still making the entry salary of $35,000 a year.
“It’s discrimination,” she said through tears. “That’s not right. And I can’t help but wonder is that because we’re an Indigenous women’s field?”
Nakuset listed myriad recommendations, which included more funding.
“I think there needs to be an empowerment fund so we can find the strength in each Indigenous individual and help them develop that strength,” she said.
In her re-examination, Inquiry Chief Commissioner Marion Buller asked Nakuset to elaborate on the empowerment fund.
“I think every individual has strengths,” said Nakuset. “I think it’s so easy to focus on all the negative things and what’s wrong with people. Sometimes people don’t know what their strengths are, but if someone points it out and says, ‘hey you are really amazing at this,’ then they can develop it and it can be their passion.
“I think we all have a purpose and if we can help people find that purpose with this empowerment fund, it would be a good life. In a perfect world, it can be done.”
Nakuset also believes there needs to be programming for Indigenous children who are in the foster care system to connect them to their culture.
“We have a program called The Good Path,” she said. “We want to make it like a Big Brother, Big Sister program. If we can match Indigenous community members with the children in care, then they would spend time with them and give them that cultural pride.
“I think that would be great.”
Fay Blaney with Aboriginal Women’s Action Network said the feminist allies that she works with requested to speak to this panel, not to question them, but to give thanks to the witnesses on the panel, as well as the commissioners.
“We really wanted to commend the commission and commend the panel and we wanted to present gifts,” said Blaney.
“I’m really hoping the commission gets the extension of the two years,” she added, “so they can do the important work that is required in Part 2 and Part 3 [of the National Inquiry] and I’d like to thank you for your hard work.”
The next Institutional hearings will take place June 12 to June 14 in the Greater Toronto area.
For more information on the National Inquiry of MMIWG or to watch the full week’s hearings go to http://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca