Bryan Jack remembers his sister, Barbara, as a tall, lanky teenager who was “always smiling, always happy.”
In the early 1970s, at the age of 14, Barbara went missing from her foster home in Whitehorse. A year later, her remains were found on Grey Mountain. Police never figured out what happened to her. No arrests were made.
“You know, you never really get to the bottom of things,” Jack said. “I can’t really say if the investigation was thorough. Only the RCMP can say that. So that leaves me at a place where I have my doubts.”
Jack, a member of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in Atlin, B.C., was one of over 70 family members of missing or murdered indigenous women who participated in Yukon’s regional roundtable in Whitehorse last Friday.
He said he told his sister’s story to add her name to “a list of women across Canada that need to be acknowledged.”
“Because I think that murdered and missing women should have been dealt with ages ago,” he said. “But it was never a priority.”
After Barbara’s remains were found, Jack said, it was three years before the RCMP confirmed her identity, using dental records. He said he doesn’t know why it took so long.
Jack said that by the time Barbara’s body was found, it was impossible to tell whether she’d been sexually assaulted. He said the family was suspicious of a couple of people in Whitehorse, but nothing ever came of it.
“What happens is you’re always reaching out for help, and when help isn’t there you just kind of give up.”
He believes the RCMP could have kept in closer contact with the family throughout the investigation.
Jack said the sorrow he felt from all the family members at last week’s roundtable was similar to the grief caused by the residential schools. But he feels it was worthwhile to tell his sister’s story.
“I guess it was a feeling of being able to just say ‘Finally, maybe I can put something out there and get something back.’”
The regional roundtable was the result of a recommendation from the first national roundtable on missing and murdered indigenous women held in Ottawa in February 2015. It was co-chaired by Kwanlin Dun Chief Doris Bill, deputy premier Elaine Taylor and Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council President Doris Anderson. Thirteen First Nation chiefs from Yukon, Northwest Territories and B.C. attended, along with Premier Darrell Pasloski, Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis and Yukon RCMP.
“It was extremely emotional (and) difficult, and I don’t mind saying I was completely drained by the end of the day,” Bill said. “We heard from family members about the lack of support, the isolation, the extreme compounded grieving that many of these families are facing.”
Taylor said the discussion on Friday continued for almost 12 hours. She called the roundtable a “first step on the journey of healing and reconciliation.”
“This is not a women’s issue. It’s not an aboriginal issue. It’s not a Yukon government issue. It’s not a Canadian issue. It’s everybody’s issue.”
At the end of the roundtable, the co-chairs signed a declaration promising to support families and address “the root causes of violence against indigenous women.”
Though the declaration is largely symbolic, Bill said there are concrete steps that can be taken right now to help those who have been affected by violence against aboriginal women.
“For instance, setting up a support network within the community. Having potluck dinners, just going to visit (the families) and having tea,” she said. “In a lot of cases, what family members want is just to talk. Because talking is healing.”
Bill also said more programs and services for men are needed, to help involve them in a discussion about violence against women.
Last week’s roundtable followed up on a family gathering held in Whitehorse last December for the families of Yukon’s missing and murdered indigenous women. Bill said another family gathering will be planned as well.
Taylor, Bill and Anderson will attend the second national roundtable in Winnipeg next week. They also plan to draft a joint submission for the Trudeau government’s national inquiry, based on feedback they’ve received from families.
Jack said he hopes the long-awaited national inquiry will help to empower women across the country.
“I hope there’s legislation across Canada that protects women. Not just aboriginal women, but women,” he said. “I’m a believer that the strength of Canada is dependent on the women.”
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