No one in the room would have held it against William Carlick if he had been angry.
In April his sister, Wendy, was killed. Police are investigating her death as a homicide.
A decade ago, Wendy’s daughter, Angel, was murdered just before her high school graduation. No one has been charged in that case.
Carlick, the last person to testify at the Whitehorse hearings of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, didn’t talk about anger. Instead he spoke about his spirituality and how it has helped him cope.
“We need to allow our spiritual ways and practice to be a big part of what we’re doing here today. If I didn’t have that I would sit here and tell you that everything we’re dealing with is so impossible,” he said.
“But when I look at the Creator and the ancestors that are here to help us, the thing that they tell us is nothing is impossible.”
Carlick ended the day by having the entire room stand and pray in a circle.
About 14 families testified publicly over three emotional days in Whitehorse. Many more gave statements privately.
The commissioners have been tasked with studying the causes of high rates of violence against Indigenous women and coming up with recommendations to make things better.
Chief commissioner Marion Buller got choked up during her closing remarks when she thanked the families for sharing their stories.
“In three days we’ve heard many stories of loss, we’ve heard anger, we’ve heard pain, but we’ve also heard courage and strength and hope.”
If Wendy Carlick was still alive, it would be easy to image her being one of the grieving family members who would have testified this week.
Following her daughter’s death, Wendy Carlick became an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women in the territory.
She was found dead, along with Sarah MacIntosh, earlier this year in a home in Whitehorse.
It was Carlick’s son who provided a particularly affecting moment this week. An emotional Alex Carlick interrupted the testimony of another family May 31 to speak about his mother.
“My mom was like the greatest person ever and everyday I’m crying because she was taken from me, just like my sister,” he said.
“I see no cops around here because they never did nothing for anything that I went through. I lost everything, the closest family that I had.”
Stories of multiple generations of families impacted by trauma were common throughout the testimony.
Many spoke about about themselves or their loved ones attending residential school and struggling with violence, abuse and addictions growing up.
“It wasn’t so much what they did to me there, it’s what they took me from,” said Greta Jack, whose 14-year-old sister Barbara was killed and found on Grey Mountain.
Jack said people were afraid to offer evidence about her sister’s death because they were afraid of the police.
“We were taught don’t say anything, the police are going to come and get your kids, don’t say anything the police are going to come and take your mother.”
Terry Ladue was taken away from his family during the Sixties Scoop.
“The effect it had on me is very simple. I don’t know how to love,” he said.
His mother, Jane Dick-Ladue was beaten to death in 1970. Ladue said he “stuck a needle in his arm for 13 years trying to kill the pain. Drinking, trying to kill the pain. Wondering why we weren’t wanted.”
He said he doesn’t trust the people running the inquiry.
“I really don’t trust people like you guys. I don’t trust the government, I don’t trust the RCMP.”
In his experience the police are only responsible for taking away children and throwing people in jail, he said.
“If I see this fall apart I’ll never trust again.”
Listening to his brother’s story was a powerful moment for Shaun LaDue, who hadn’t heard Terry’s side of the story before.
“We all have our own [story] and it was amazing to hear him enunciate his pain and hurt and get it out there,” he said.
The commission has faced criticism over the way it was organized and how it communicated with families.
Lawyer Joan Jack said the requirement to swear in witnesses before they testify does not follow Indigenous law.
“It doesn’t mean anything to us to swear on a bible or eagle feather,” she added.
Jack and her family were not asked to swear in before their testimony and were dressed in their red Tlingit regalia, which she said means that they were “standing in their truth.”
Jack raised questions about the aftercare following the inquiry.
“There was a lot of help here, which was wonderful. But then what? It’s like ripping open an old scar and you’re bleeding all over,” she said. (For more on aftercare, see story page 4.)
Despite the concerns, for some families this was the beginning of a healing process. Ross River resident Yvonne Shorty testified on May 30 with her family on behalf of their grandmother, who was murdered 25 years ago. They are still waiting for answers.
“What our grandmother taught us when we were very young was family unity and when she passed away, there was none. Now, being here as a family unit has brought our family closer,” she said.
Being able to share her pain and disappointment in the lack of response from the justice system was important to Shorty.
Joy O’Brien, cousin of Tina Washpan, whose body was found near Dawson Creek, B.C., in 1990, agreed that having a stage for these stories was essential.
“Giving a voice to the families for their missing and murdered loved ones is amazing. Canada needs to hear those things. They are harsh but this is what our people live through every day,” she said.
Through their testimony many families provided the commission with recommendations.
Those include changes to the justice system, more education and better access to traditional ways of healing.
Many raised concerns about the way police handled their cases. Yukon RCMP superintendent Brian Jones said he didn’t want to talk about specifics before the inquiry’s final report comes out.
“I know that we investigate missing persons cases and homicides cases differently now than we used to.”
For the most part police stayed away from the hearings. The Yukon RCMP’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls liaison was at the hearings periodically over the three days, he said.
In one case she was asked to sit with a family while they testified.
“Families do not forget. The loss of their loved ones is real and ongoing,” Jones said.
Doris Anderson, president of the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Circle, said she’d like to see some of the recommendations from Yukon families in the commission’s final report.
She said she’d support the idea of an annual family gathering for those who have lost loved ones.
“At that time they get to share so many stories and so many similarities. Families also share the ways they dealt with it and moved forward.”
Anderson said she’s glad the commission has agreed to come back to the territory. She thinks more families will want to speak.
“Some families are still dealing with some pretty raw stuff and I think when the commission comes back that would be a great opportunity for them to tell their stories as well.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at email@example.com and Sharon Nadeem at firstname.lastname@example.org