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MMIWG report: Relatives, friends have cautious hope for meaningful change

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When Lori Davis spoke last year at the national Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, she knew her teary testimony would do nothing to bring back her sister Carol or provide answers in the 30-year-old unsolved murder. Her hope was that her story and those of […]


When Lori Davis spoke last year at the national Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, she knew her teary testimony would do nothing to bring back her sister Carol or provide answers in the 30-year-old unsolved murder.

Her hope was that her story and those of the other 1,483 relatives and survivors who testified would compel the inquiry’s final report, to be released Monday, to contain recommendations to protect future generations of Indigenous women.

“I need to go beyond me and my sister, and think about all the young women coming forward, because we still see stories about what it’s like to be a young native woman,” Davis said recently. “I think that for me is the hope (for the recommendations) — that our young women don’t feel scared because of the colour of their skin, that they are not a target.”

After victims’ families demanded a national inquiry for decades, the $92-million federal commission was struck three years ago. It was beset by delays and criticism, but its final report will be presented Monday, and a press release promises “it will inspire all Nations and Canadians to unite and build a safer Canada for Indigenous women.”

By the RCMP count, 1,200 Aboriginal women went missing or were murders in Canada between 1980 and 2012. Other tallies put the number at close to 4,000 in the past half century.

The CBC has reported that the final report is 1,200 page long with 230 recommendations, and that it concludes the disproportionate level of violence faced by Indigenous women and girls was a “genocide” caused by “state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies.”

Davis’s 23-year-old niece, Vanessa Dora Parnell, last year urged inquiry commissioners to recommend that the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women should be declared a global epidemic.

“It took a lot of fight from our people to get this recognized in the first place: that our women are being targeted. And there are a lot of injustices that are happening to our women that are kind of normalized in this society,” said Parnell, a Langara College student in Aboriginal studies and a part-time worker at a Downtown Eastside justice reform organization.

Vanessa Parnell, left, with her aunt Lori Davis, sister of murder victim Carol Ruby Davis, at the Missing Women memorial boulder in Vancouver’s Crab Park.

“I really hope just for the general public to understand the gravity of how bad it can be for our women, and how it affects their lives as well. It is not a healthy place to live when our women are going missing, Indigenous or non-Indigenous. So I really hope for more education around this epidemic.”

Carol Ruby Davis was 29 years old in 1987 when Burnaby RCMP found her body dumped in some bushes. That left her 12-year-old son B.J., who has cerebral palsy, to be raised by Lori Davis, his aunt. Carol Davis had a tumultuous childhood in Vancouver while living with her troubled mother and abusive stepfather, and later bounced between foster homes, Lori Davis told the inquiry.

Carol Davis would turn to drugs to mask her pain, but she always gave her son gifts and special outings whenever she could save a bit of money while working the streets of the Downtown Eastside, she said. No one has ever been charged in Carol Davis’s death, and Lori Davis posts regular Tweets to “speak her name” so her sister will not be forgotten.

Parnell grew up in the Downtown Eastside hearing stories about violence against Indigenous women and her mother taught her to keep her guard up.

“I really had to realize how to carry myself in this community, because it was scary knowing the statistics of the Indigenous women going missing,” said Parnell. “That is kind of our quality of life. That is what we have to get used to and be mindful of every time we leave our homes, and every time we go to school.”

In a statement Parnell wrote to the inquiry, the young woman urged the commissioners to recommend the crimes of missing and murdered Indigenous women should be “treated with the same severity” as every other epidemic.

“I think raising awareness is a huge part of moving forward,” she said recently. “I guess what everyone can really hope for is more education around what is happening with our women.”

CeeJai Julian at the memorial pole for murdered and missing women at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver.

CeeJai Julian testified at the national inquiry about her sister Norma George and her many friends who vanished from the Downtown Eastside in the 1990s.

The last time she saw George, whom she described as beautiful and funny but haunted by the death of their brother, was in September 1992 near the stroll where she worked in the Downtown Eastside. The last words the protective older sister told her little sister were, “Go home baby girl,” an emotional Julian told the inquiry.

George was fully clothed, wearing makeup and jewellery, that night — a stark contrast to the discovery of her naked body days later in Langley. “She was curled up in a fetal position. She must have been so cold,” Julian told the inquiry.

She also recounted the heart-breaking story of her friend Sarah de Vries, noting they used to “spot” for each other to ensure they weren’t picked up by bad dates. But then Julian broke her hip and couldn’t watch out for her friend, who vanished in 1998 and whose DNA would later be found on the Port Coquitlam farm of serial killer Robert Pickton.

Sarah de Vries reads to Jeanie, one of her two children, before her disappearance in 1998.

It is women like her late friend de Vries who she hopes will be helped by the inquiry’s recommendations.

“I personally hope that there will be some sort of money granted to grassroots organizations that help the ones that are homeless and surviving sex trade work. Money to go into programs and housing,” said Julian, now a peer support worker with Vancouver Coastal Health.

Julian, who will be at the report’s release in Gatineau on Monday as part of the inquiry’s family advisory circle, would also like to see a national holiday dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women, to “open the eyes of all Canadians” that this is a continuing issue that needs to be addressed.

“I see it daily in the Downtown Eastside. I see the women sleeping on the ground, it’s like their heart is so close to the cement. They are worthy of having a bed and having clothing and dignity,” she said.

“All Canadians should be aware that our women are strong, they are needed, they are life-givers.”

The inquiry’s 15 community hearings, which gathered testimony from the relatives and survivors, began in Whitehorse in June 2017, went next to Smithers that September, and then travelled across the country before returning to B.C. for the final hearings in Vancouver in April 2018.

Among the many who testified in Smithers was Vicki Hill, who paused frequently to compose herself as she told the inquiry she was a baby when her mother, Mary Jane Hill, was murdered along the Highway of Tears, east of Prince Rupert, in 1978.

Vicki Hill in 2012 with a photo of her mother in the background.

“She won’t be there for any special occasion. Period. And that’s not fair. She didn’t deserve this, whatsoever. She had children to look after. She had siblings. She wasn’t there to see her grandchildren be born,” Vicki Hill testified.

It remains difficult to get answers in the unsolved murder of the mother of four, and Hill wonders why more DNA testing wasn’t done in recent years. “Are we ever going to find the answers? Are we going to get what we want?” she asked.

Indeed, many police forces have been criticized by families who believed officers didn’t take cases seriously when the women and girls went missing. It is expected the report will contain recommendations directed at the RCMP and municipal forces across Canada.

Lorelei Williams wearing a T-shirt with the images of her cousin Tanya Holyk and Aunt Belinda Williams.

Lorelei Williams, whose cousin Tanya Holyk’s DNA was also found on Pickton’s farm and whose aunt Belinda Williams disappeared in the 1970s, hopes that whatever the recommendations say, they will be embraced immediately by officials. The B.C. government, she said, was slow to respond to recommendations by the provincial inquiry into missing women run by former Justice Wally Oppal.

“That is definitely one thing I want to see because our women are still going missing and being murdered. Action needs to be taken right now,” Williams, who works at the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre, said this week.

Williams, who founded the Butterflies in Spirit dance troupe to honour the victims, has been critical of the federal inquiry. She was one of nearly 60 relatives, advocates and Indigenous leaders from across Canada who signed an open letter in 2017 raising concerns that the inquiry “is in serious trouble” and that a “lack of communication is causing anxiety, frustration, confusion, and disappointment.”

When she testified in April 2018, the experience left her emotionally and physically depleted, despite the support she had at the hearing. Is she hopeful now that adding her voice to those of the other victims and survivors will make a difference for future generations?

“It’s hard to say because I don’t know what is going to happen with this final report. Was it worth it? I don’t know,” said Williams, who paused and then added: “I guess so, because in the end I am telling my family’s story.”

The release of the report will be livestreamed at 7 a.m. Monday (10 a.m. eastern) at: www.mmiwg-ffada.ca or www.facebook.com/MMIWG/.

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