After only one day of testimony, the chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls already knows she’ll be coming back to the territory to hear more.
Marion Buller told reporters May 31 that it’s becoming clear the national inquiry is going to need more time to gather information from around the country, though she didn’t know how much.
“We’ll be coming back to Yukon, definitely. Will it be Whitehorse? It’s too soon to tell,” she said.
Three days of Whitehorse public hearings started May 30 inside a large white tent along the banks of the Yukon River.
The emotional day included tears but also a sense of responsibility to tell the stories of women who are often forgotten.
“Every fibre in my body is shaking right to my boots,” Frances Neumann told the five commissioners. “Please see this through.”
Neumann spoke about years of searching for her sister-in-law Mary Johns, who left the territory and disappeared into Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside after the death of one of her children.
Johns died in 1982 and was buried in an anonymous grave reserved for those whose bodies are not claimed. It wasn’t until six years after her death that Johns’s family learned what happened to her.
Johns is believed to have been murdered by suspected serial killer Gilbert Paul Jordan, also known as the “Boozing Barber,” who targeted mostly Indigenous women and killed them with a lethal amount of alcohol.
She was the fourth woman to die in this man’s company, Neumann said. Jordan was linked to at least eight deaths, according to an APTN report played at the inquiry. Jordan was never charged with Johns’s death. He was eventually convicted of manslaughter in connection with the death of another woman in 1988.
“These women were vulnerable, they had no protection. They were lost, but each of those women had families that loved them. We let them down,” Neumann said. “We did not protect them because they were weak and because they were weak no justice came to their aid.”
Families told the commissioners about the damage done to those left behind when a woman disappears.
Johns’s son Charlie-Peter struggled without his mother.
“He always felt displaced and was always searching for that meaning in his life,” said family member Tracy Camilleri.
Charlie-Peter died of a drug overdose. Like his mother he was living in the Downtown Eastside when he died.
“For me, my presence here is for him, for his closure,” Camilleri said.
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About 40 family members have signed up to speak with the commissioners over the three days that the hearings are in Whitehorse. Others have the option to give statements privately.
The hearings have some hallmarks of a conventional inquiry: those testifying were asked to promise to tell the truth, and various exhibits were numbered and organized.
In other ways organizers have made efforts to avoid the courtroom feel. The families and five commissioners sat in two half circles facing each other. A qulliq lamp was lit in the middle of the room. Cotton blankets — made by women in Saskatoon — lined the walls.
Outside the main tent elders and health staff are available to anyone who might need support.
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The enduring trauma of residential schools was a common theme in many of the stories heard on the first day of testimony.
Many who spoke were either survivors themselves or the children of survivors.
May Bolton told the commission she went into “residential school survival mode” and shut down all her feelings when she found her mother, Elsie Shorty, who had been shot and killed in 1992.
“I just don’t know why something like that could happen to my mother,” she said.
Bolton’s father was originally blamed for the crime but the family insists the case was mishandled by the police.
Her father only spoke Dene, she said, and would answer “Yes, sir” to any question he was asked in English.
Police at the time considered that a confession. Officers wouldn’t listen to the family’s pleas for an interpreter, she said.
“They never did any investigation.”
Her father, who has since died, denied killing his wife. He was in jail for a few weeks and had to check in with RCMP on a regular basis after he was released, the commission heard. No one who testified could say whether he ever stood trial.
Ivan Bolton testified that officers investigating the case called Elsie Shorty “just another native woman.”
An emotional May Bolton made it clear she was much more than that.
“She was not ‘just another native woman’ she was my mother and a wife.”
The lack of information on the case has been one of the hardest parts, the family said. They requested copies of police records about a year ago. Those still haven’t arrived.
The hearings were about more than remembering the people who weren’t there to speak for themselves. Families were given a chance to make suggestions to the commissioners for how to prevent deaths like these in the future.
Shorty’s family wants improved communication and for anyone involved in the justice system to get better training in Indigenous cultural protocols. They also suggested a mentoring program for younger children particularly while their families are grieving a tragedy.
Camilleri called for more education so non-Indigenous Canadians can learn about the country’s Indigenous history.
“The Indigenous people of Canada are emotionally exhausted from being the educators,” she said.
The Whitehorse hearings are slated to wrap up on June 1.
“Today is a turning point in our national history,” Buller said at the opening on the hearings “Now there is a national stage for the stories and the voices of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls through their families.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org