Deborah Ginnish knows the importance of having families listened to before the federal government undertakes the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.
Last week, Ginnish travelled from her home on the Membertou First Nation in Nova Scotia to be part of a forum conducted by the Assembly of First Nations on the Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta.
The result of that forum will be a report the AFN will present to the federal government Feb. 15 laying out the conditions that need to be met if this inquiry hopes to be successful.
But the result of that forum for Ginnish was dredging up memories that have not been laid to rest–not for her, her family or her community.
Ten years ago, Ginnish’s niece Michelle, 23, was stabbed to death by a woman on the Membertou First Nation. It was an alcohol and drug-fuelled argument that spun out of control.
“That really split the community. Even today it’s still there,” said Ginnish. “We are still grieving. That bitterness is still there. Even towards that family of that woman because it is such a close-knit community and it will never go away.”
It’s the same for all First Nations communities, said Cheryl Maloney, president of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association, who accompanied Ginnish.
“This anger is something that is carried on…. When we bring our families here, that opens up something bigger than actually talking about the deaths or the circumstances. It opens up those wounds that are still in the community, still in the families,” said Maloney.
“A lot of the families are estranged for different reasons, on how people grieve or don’t grieve, whose fault it might have been and that’s a problem within our communities that we have to deal with.”
Maloney and Ginnish both attended a pre-inquiry meeting hosted by the federal government in Halifax. Ministers Carolyn Bennett (Indigenous Affairs), Jody Wilson-Raybould (Justice and Attorney General) and Patricia Hajdu (Status of Women) are crossing the country, gathering input on how the national inquiry should be carried out. Based on that meeting, Maloney and Ginnish say the inquiry needs to be different.
It needs to be inclusive, said Maloney. The pre-inquiry meeting was limited to direct family members. Maloney uses the extended family of 26-year-old Inuk woman Loretta Saunders from Labrador, who was murdered, as an example.
Her cousins, who were part of the search for Saunders and also worked with Maloney to clean out Loretta’s Halifax apartment, were not allowed to be part of the pre-inquiry process.
Families were deeply traumatized both during and following the pre-inquiry, said Ginnish.
“There should have been some counselling or debriefing available for the families after the [pre-] inquiry,” she said.
Maloney goes a step further saying every community needs to have mental health workers trained in a variety of areas, including post-traumatic stress disorder, who remain in the communities well after the national inquiry wraps up.
Ginnish also thinks it’s important for the national inquiry to follow cultural protocol, such as opening prayers and sacred fires.
Embracing a restorative justice model could help healing to begin as the national inquiry is carried out, said Maloney.
If done right, Ginnish believes the national inquiry could help her “move forward.”
“We’re not doing this to look at blame or what happened. That’s a waste of our energy and heart and soul. We need to move forward, find solutions to everything,” said Maloney.