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Gwich’in Tribal Council calls for action in wake of Yukon teen’s death

James Wilson, president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, has called on community leaders to start a discussion on how to address violence against women.

James Wilson, president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, has called on community leaders to start a discussion on how to address violence against women.

He wrote to the presidents of N.W.T.’s four local Gwich’in councils last week, asking them to come prepared to discuss the issue and present possible solutions at the next board meeting.

Brandy Vittrekwa, 17, was found dead on a Whitehorse trail earlier this month. RCMP consider the death a homicide, and have arrested but not charged a young man in connection with the case.

Vittrekwa was Teetl’it Gwitch’in from Fort McPherson, N.W.T., and also lived for periods of time in Inuvik, Old Crow and Whitehorse.

She is remembered by friends as a joyful teen, full of life and affection for her family.

“I did not know Brandy but as a father it breaks my heart to think about what happened to her,” wrote Wilson in the letter.

“As the leader of the Gwich’in, it pains me to think that another one of our young, promising leaders will never get the chance to follow her dreams.

“Violence against aboriginal women is a national tragedy in this country. The Gwitch’in were reminded last week that such violence continues to rear its ugly head from coast, to coast, to coast. It is time we put an end to this.”

In an interview this week, Wilson said this is the first time to his knowledge that Gwich’in leaders have issued a call to action on violence against women.

“We’ve had these kinds of cases in the past. I just don’t know if anyone has taken the initiative to throw this situation out there.”

He’s no expert, he said, but he hopes that by starting a healthy conversation, solutions may follow.

Already he is getting positive feedback from board members and the community, he said.

“People are saying, it’s about time that leadership start addressing these issues.”

“We should have said something a long time ago. We just can’t let these kinds of thing go by.”

Vittrekwa was found in the Kwanlin Dun First Nation’s McIntyre subdivision on the evening of Dec. 8.

Her death launched the second homicide investigation in that community in just half a year.

In June, 69-year-old Allan Waugh was found dead in his home. That case remains unsolved.

The Kwanlin Dun community, too, has come together in recent weeks to discuss ways to improve neighbourhood safety.

The First Nation hosted a community meeting on Dec. 10, and members filled out Post-it notes with ideas, like adding pay phones, lighting and security patrols.

Vittrekwa’s death coincided with ramped up RCMP presence in the neighbourhood, which was an outcome of discussions at the First Nation’s annual general assembly.

RCMP and Kwanlin Dun have been working to address safety issues for years.

In 2010 a full review of Yukon’s police force was launched in response the 2008 death of First Nation man Raymond Silverfox in RCMP custody.

A Kwanlin Dun report prepared for the investigators revealed the deep-seated mistrust of police that many First Nation members hold.

Some mentioned the 1998 shooting death of Harley Timmers by police.

But if you ask Marian Horne, president of the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council, the RCMP has really stepped up to the plate over the past couple years on the subject of violence against First Nation women.

She recently went to a meeting in Saskatchewan with national RCMP to talk about the problem, she told the News last week.

“I was so enthused with their teamwork. The caring of those commanding officers that were there. It was great.”

Earlier this year, RCMP released a report summarizing what we know about missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada, and plotting next steps.

The report committed to enhancing efforts on unresolved cases, focusing on prevention efforts, increasing public awareness and strengthening the data.

“I am absolutely thrilled with the RCMP,” said Horne.

Here in the Yukon, RCMP Corp. Calista MacLeod has been involved with some of the efforts to strengthen relations between First Nations and police. That includes the Sisters in Spirit campaign and the Liard Aboriginal Women Council’s Together for Justice initiative.

In 2012 MacLeod received a community safety award for her work on women’s safety in the territory.

Recently she works with Kaushee’s Place in Whitehorse to initiate a third-party reporting program for victims of sexual assault. It means that victims can report anonymously to police through a support worker, and RCMP will have a means to get in touch with the victim without knowing their identity.

Keeping strong lines of communication open is key to these sorts of partnerships, said McLeod.

“It’s just maintaining relationships with people who are doing good work to try to bring awareness to violence against women.

“Often we are the people at the front end, or the front line, that are dealing with people in traumatic circumstances, and part of our role is to make sure that were providing those referrals to other agencies so they get that support and assistance that they need.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at