More than hundred people gathered in Membertou First Nation, N.S. Sunday afternoon to welcome family members taking part in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls this week.
Drummers and dancers accompanied family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls as they gathered outside of the Membertou Heritage Park to take part in song and ceremony before hearings get underway Monday.
“Many events are held here in Membertou and we welcome them all,” Membertou First Nation Chief Terry Paul said in his welcoming address.
“But in this case, I can say with confidence that this is one of the most important gatherings we’ll experience because of the impact and true healing that it can bring to our nation, to our communities, to our women and their families,” Chief Paul aid.
It’s the first time the national inquiry has held community hearings in Atlantic Canada since it began scheduling hearings across the county this year. It’s also the first time the inquiry has held hearings in a First Nations community.
Community hearings have been previously held in Whitehorse, Yukon, Smithers, B.C. and Winnipeg, Man.
The three days of hearings will be held at the Membertou Trade and Convention Centre from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1.
Cheryl Maloney, president of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association, said the families of the missing murdered have carried the weight of this call for an inquiry.
“These families didn’t have any place to go, no one to call to help them with their problems,” Maloney described to the crowd during the welcoming ceremony.
“Whatever it was, there was nobody for them to call, nobody to hear their stories or their concerns,” she said.
“There’s always things that can go wrong but it’s all of our responsibility now to find solutions to make this work,” Maloney added.
The national inquiry has been met with controversy shortly after it launched in Sept. 2016. There have been resignations such as from commissioner Marilyn Poitras, executive director Michèle Moreau, two communications directors, the director of operations, the director and manager of community relations.
There have also been calls from political organizations like the Assembly of First Nations to reset the inquiry.
Day begins with sunrise ceremony
The day began with a sunrise ceremony at the Membertou Heritage Park where the sacred fire was lit inside a tipi across the street from venue where the hearings are being held.
Later in the morning, women with hand drums gathered near the shores of the Sydney Harbour for a water ceremony and to welcome canoeists who came ashore to begin a march from the harbour to Membertou.
Tricia Johnson from nearby Eskasoni First Nation took part in the march from Sydney Harbour to the First Nation community. She held a photo of her sister, 23-year-old Cheryl Ann Johnson, as she marched with the small group.
“It’s just overwhelming. Just to hear the singing and stuff and when I looked down at the water, I can’t help but cry,” Johnson, 36, said through tears.
Cheryl Johnson’s body was found in Sydney Harbour a day after she was last seen at a bar in downtown Sydney with her friends in May 2001.
Johnson, who testifies before the commissioners Qajaq Robinson and Michèle Audette on Monday, hopes her sister’s police investigation can be reopened.
“I know she didn’t walk down to the boardwalk herself,” Johnson explained.
“They (the police) tried to say it was accidental. It wasn’t. I don’t believe it was. My family doesn’t believe it was,” she said.
“I’m not an investigator. I’m not a cop but I found out more myself than they even, they didn’t even try. It was case closed,” she added.
The national inquiry gets underway in Membertou Monday at 9 a.m.
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