Dateline reporter Laura Murphy-Oates recently visited the First Nation reserve in Canada with the highest number of unsolved missing and murdered Indigenous women cases. She found a community that felt very familiar.
In 2014 I travelled to my father’s childhood home for the first time – Beemunnel Reserve near the outback NSW town of Warren. Now just a clearing on the outskirts of town, it was once dotted with ‘humpies’ or shacks – with dirt floors and no running water, except for one tap shared by 30 families, and the nearby creek. Many years ago these served as homes, for the local Aboriginal community, and also for my dad.
I was there for a family reunion, among hundreds of cousins, aunties and uncles. Over lunch, my great uncle showed me his Certificate of Exemption that was granted to him by the Aborigines Welfare Board in 1961. It allowed him, as an Aboriginal man, to work, move freely in town, drink at public bars and enjoy other so called ‘privileges’ most Aboriginal people were not afforded at the time.
When my father was born in 1954, Aboriginal people didn’t live in the town proper, and across NSW many were relegated to church-run missions or state run reserves, away from the cities and towns, where they could be monitored and controlled. At many of these places, language and culture was forbidden. The reserves were also where the government workers would come looking for the children, to take them away.
That afternoon there was much crying, hugging and clasping of hands. Some families and siblings were brought together for the first time, since being taken away as children. I wandered through the grass with my dad trying to find the exact place he used to call home.
My visit to Sagkeeng
Drum beats and high pitched singing echoes through the wooden lodge, bedecked with traditional beading and animal skins. The song is part of a traditional welcome to Sagkeeng First Nation reserve, a self-governing Indigenous community in Canada’s prairie province of Manitoba, which I am visiting while on assignment for Dateline.
A dozen or so First Nations people have gathered at Turtle Lodge to share their stories with me, an Indigenous journalist from Australia.
After the welcome song, we do a smudging ceremony – passing a shell filled with burning sage around the circle, letting the smoke wash over us. Then the traumatic stories begin.
Three years after that trip to the Beemunnel, I’m amazed to be on an Indigenous reserve on the other side of the world, hearing hauntingly similar stories to that of my family.
“Well the nuns were strict, you couldn’t talk your language, you couldn’t talk to your own brothers, to your own sibling in the school, and if they did they would cut your hair,” says elder Janet Bruyere.
“I turned to alcohol after I got out of school, started drinking… I had flashbacks… thinking back on what happened to me,” she adds.
I ask her what the flashbacks are about.
“Things that happened to me in school…. but I don’t want to say it,” she says.
Janet is just one of many Sagkeeng residents haunted by their treatment in residential schools – Canada’s version of the stolen generation. The joint church and state-run school system saw generations of children forcibly taken away from their parents and placed in boarding schools, where physical and sexual abuse was rife. The last schools only closed in the 1990s.
Whilst I’m here to report on a different issue - the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women launched by Prime Minister Trudeau in 2015- I soon learn that the trauma of child removals is an essential part of that story. The official policy of the residential schools, ‘to take the Aboriginal out of the child’, has left a legacy of broken families and communities that feeds into violence against Indigenous women.
Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women
In 2014 a landmark police report revealed that between 1980 and 2012 1,181 Indigenous women had gone missing or been murdered in Canada. Indigenous women make up nearly 16 per cent of all homicides, but only 4.3 per cent of the population. The most recent reports show that Indigenous women are six times more likely to be murdered in Canada than other women.
It’s clear that family violence is a part of the problem- accounting for 62% of all Indigenous female homicides in the 2014 report.
“Our parents didn’t know how to love us because they were taken away from raising us, you know I grew up in a household where I wasn’t told I was loved,” says one Sagkeeng resident at the community meeting.
“Oppressed people oppress people, and I think a lot of times we oppress our own people,” says another.
But family violence doesn’t account for why Indigenous women are so overrepresented in homicide figures – in fact family violence homicides were higher for non-Indigenous women. Sagkeeng Local Chief, Kevin Hart, believes a big factor driving the high homicide rate is the social dysfunction and poverty on the reserves, which can drive women away from their homes and into danger, at the hands of others.
“In a lot of these remote communities the men and women have to go outside and go to urban centres such as Winnipeg (Manitoba’s capitol) to go to school,” says Chief Hart. “And you know they get caught up in social problems that are out there, they get caught up in gangs.”
“But more importantly they’re being victimised out there by those other people…and we’re seeing how our women and men are going missing because of that.”
Unlike Australia where many missions and reserves were shut down by the 1970s and 80s, just under half of all First Nation people in Canada live on reserves. The reserves are often built on their traditional homelands, and self-governing, falling under treaty agreements. However a report last year showed that 60 per cent of First Nation children on reserves live in poverty, with the worst child poverty rates in the country, found on Manitoba’s reserves.
“Right now we have a 174 thousand home shortage across Canada with the 634 First Nations…you can go into any home and there’s 15, 20 people living in a house,” says Chief Hart.
“You don’t have to go too far from here where you have people living in homes that are condemned,” he says.
The missing and murdered of Sagkeeng
Out of more than 600 First nation groups across Canada, according to local media, Sagkeeng has the highest number of unsolved cases of missing and murdered women. At Turtle Lodge, the gathered families start opening up- sharing stories about their daughters, aunties, sisters and mothers, many who met their end far away from the reserve, in gruesome or mysterious circumstances.
“They said she was tortured by the pigs, the pigs ate her, and all they found was a fingernail,” says Isabel Fontaine Abraham. It’s believed her sister, Sharon Abraham, was murdered in British Columbia by Canada’s most prolific serial killer, pig farmer Robert Pickton, but no charges were ever laid.
“They told me that she was stabbed 17 times,” says Janet Bruyere. The body of her 17-year-old granddaughter, Fonessa Bruyere was found in a field outside of Winnipeg in 2007 and her case is still unsolved.
“I don’t sleep at night…we just keep waiting for her, we wait for her call. Her mother thinks she is still alive,” she says.
“Her fingernails were broken, she had some bruises and yet they said that she died by suicide,” says local Minister Nancy Bruyere. Her 32-year-old niece Crystal Lynn Dorie, was found dead in a hotel in Winnipeg in 2015.
“Sometimes I can’t believe what our people went through,” says Nancy, her voice rising to a wail, pushing out words through tears. “They shouldn’t have went through what they did, but…I’m sorry!”
She stops speaking, overcome by heavy sobbing. An elder holds her hand tightly. I get the sense she’s not only crying for the loss of her niece, but for the many, many losses that her community has endured, too many to count. It’s a kind of multi-layered grief, familiar to Indigenous people the world over.
After a long day of storytelling and sharing, it’s the end of the meeting. To clear away the trauma, we smudge, letting smoke wash over ourselves again.