A First Nations woman’s lifelong fight for change

Eleven aboriginal women hung tobacco ties and a flower wreath on the fences of a Port Coquitlam farm one cloudy day in the spring of 2004.

Eleven aboriginal women hung tobacco ties and a flower wreath on the fences of a Port Coquitlam farm one cloudy day in the spring of 2004. They “smudged” the area, dispersing the scent of burnt sage with an eagle feather, an aboriginal practice that is believed to cleanse people of negativity and help them to find clarity at a trying moment.

They prayed that the man going around Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside who they believed was responsible for all their sisters’, aunties’, and mothers’ disappearances would come to justice.

Kukdookah Terri Brown led the women to Robert Pickton’s farm, even as cops were excavating the area with cranes.

She spearheaded the investigation of missing and murdered aboriginal women in B.C., which eventually led to the arrest of the infamous serial killer.

Now, she’s ready to pass her torch and enjoying life in the Yukon.

Brown hails from Telegraph Creek, and is a member of the Tahltan First Nation. Kukdookah means “a woman paddling a canoe in the deepest waters,” Brown said.

Indeed, she has encountered deep forces. The residential school survivor fought treacherous push-backs when she first started blowing the whistle on all the aboriginal women disappearing in the gritty Vancouver neighbourhood from 2000 to 2002.

At the time, her plight fell on deaf ears.

“Today it’s common language, it’s common knowledge. But then, it was almost like it was beyond their thinking… And that was First Nations, political parties – I talked to all of them.

“From the prime minister, to the cabinet ministers, to our leaders, there was no response. They didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what to think. No one thought anything can be done. These women, after all, had vanished,” she said.

Brown, who now works as a policy analyst for the Teslin Tlingit Council, looks back at her activism as some of her darker days. “I was very angry. I guess you do have to be fueled by hurt and anger,” she said.

When Brown was 10 years old, she saw her mom plead to keep her younger sister, Ada Brown. “The Indian Agent came and said (to her), you can’t look after these children,” she said. Ada was spared, but her brother and herself were not.

She learnt about the systemic abuse of First Nations women when she took women’s studies courses as part of her economics program in Simon Fraser University in her mid-twenties. She identified herself as a feminist and wanted a role in seeking equality, Brown said.

The political became more personal. Ada Brown was brutalized beyond recognition in Prince George in 2001. “The autopsy report said it was a brain aneurysm. Yeah, because (she was beaten) to a pulp,” Brown said at the time, in an interview with the Toronto Star.

“I guess people think, ‘Just another dead Indian.’ But she was our baby sister. She mattered to us,” she said in 2004.

Brown says her resolve to end violence against women was strengthened after she was abused by a former partner.

But Brown doesn’t blame him. She sees the bigger picture.

“I saw the destruction of alcohol and deterioration of the family because of all the forces that seem to be working against them (the men). I do not blame him … It was part of the damage inflicted on us,” she said.

“Of course, I couldn’t say that 20 years ago.”

But what really sealed Brown’s convictions were the cases of missing and murdered First Nations women in B.C. People would tell her of their missing family members and friends when she founded the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network in Vancouver in 1994.

“It really haunted me, it was in the back of my mind all the time. What happened to all these women?”

One story in particular ignited her to seek change on a national level. A Squamish mother told her about a call she received from police, who told her that her daughter’s body parts had been found around the Downtown Eastside, Brown said.

That propelled Brown to seek national leadership so she could have more political weight. In 2001, she ran for president of a prominent First Nations non-profit, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, which was founded in 1974 and consists of aboriginal female leaders across the country.

As the president of the national group, she reported 50 missing and murdered women to the Vancouver Police Department. Police at the time had documented only 20 cases, she said.

Brown’s prayers on Pickton’s farm were met, months later. On March 10, 2004, human flesh was found on his land. Pickton mixed some of remains into the ground pork meat he sold. In 2007, he was convicted with life imprisonment for murdering six women. He was also charged for the murders of 20 other women, but these charges were later stayed.

Brown accomplished several notable initiatives on behalf of First Nation women that same year. She had a private meeting with the Liberal prime minister of the day, Paul Martin, and asked him to fund a campaign she called “Sisters in Spirit,” which was to document the stories of all the disappeared aboriginal women in Canada.

Martin was aware of the missing and murdered women, the former prime minister told the News. “What really brought it home to me was talking to the leader of the Native Women’s Association,” Martin said, describing Brown as an “outstanding leader.”

Jean Augustine, Martin’s minister of state, responded by granting the Native Women’s Association of Canada $20,000 to start their research in May 2004.

That same month, Brown spoke at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues together with the former national chief, Phil Fontaine, about conditions of poverty, lack of jobs and discrimination that First Nation women face in Canada.

Brown stepped down as president of the group later that year. But her political work didn’t stop there.

In 2005, she staged a blockade and a sit-in at the council office of the Tahltan First Nation, in her hometown of Telegraph Creek. The actions were to oppose the mining of NovaGold at Dease Lake, one of their reserves. The sit-in lasted for eight and half months, although Brown didn’t stay until the end.

The mining was eventually halted and now the Tahltans are consulted more than they used to for corporate projects, said Brown.

“Success is not necessarily, ‘Did you shut the government down’ or ‘Did you shut the mining companies down,’” Brown said in an interview with The Walrus at the time. She counts the changes made at the band office as more significant. “When the individual changes, the nation cannot help but change.”

Brown then applied her activism to working in an administrative position in a band council. She developed a program and organized three conferences that addressed the effects of Indian residential schools, while she worked in the Dene council in Yellowknife, N.W.T.

After people shared their stories, Brown pooled together counselors, psychologists and traditional First Nations healers to help the survivors move on, she said.

Her efforts were once again recognized on a national level. She was appointed as one of 10 people who make up the survivor committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, a government-funded group that documents human rights violations of residential schools.

Brown joins the committee for the fourth time this year, next year being the last. She will be leading healing circles to encourage survivors to talk about their painful past in a national event that will be held in Vancouver from September 16-22.

Brown said there’s too much focus on the extreme forms of abuse of residential school. Apprehending someone’s children is an act of genocide in itself, she insisted.

Martin said he is astonished there isn’t a separate commission for the missing and murdered aboriginal women, which the Native Women’s Association now counts at 582 cases. “If 500 men had disappeared, I can tell you there’d be a commission,” he said. He acknowledged that the work that Brown started isn’t done yet.

But Brown said she’s paid her dues. She wants to “relax and enjoy the peace, whatever that means,” she said, chuckling.

She moved to the Yukon to be closer to her five-year old granddaughter, who she describes as the “light of my life.”

She encourages other young First Nation women to step forward and continue the fight for equality, advising them to learn from her mother’s words, to understand the connectedness of indigenous people.

“You are never alone,” she remembers her mother saying. “When you need help it’s there. After all, I’m just a girl from the bush, what do I know? How did I end up doing something like this? It’s my spirit.”

Contact Krystle Alarcon at