The family of slain university student Loretta Saunders and two survivors of violence and harassment gave emotional testimony during the first day of hearings into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls on Monday in Membertou First Nation, N.S.
Loretta Saunders’ parents, Miriam and Clayton Saunders, along with her sisters, Delilah and Audrey, told inquiry commissioners Qajaq Robinson and Michèle Audette how her death affected them and how they were treated by police, the media and victims’ services.
Loretta Saunders, an Inuk from Labrador, went missing from her Halifax apartment on Feb. 13, 2015. Her body was found two weeks later stuffed in a hockey bag located in the medium of the Trans Canada highway near Salisbury, N.B.
Saunders’ two roommates are currently serving life sentences for murdering her.
Miriam Saunders said investigators with Halifax Regional Police spoke directly to her on the phone about her daughter’s case until they learned Saunders was Inuk.
“When they started calling her Inuk, I had to start swearing and everything at them in order to get answers. I didn’t get to talk to the investigators after that,” Miriam Saunders explained.
Delilah Saunders testified that she learned that her sister was killed was from a text message from a television news producer in Toronto.
“The way they knew so early is because they were there filming Loretta being dug out of the snow,” Delilah Saunders told the commissioners.
“I think the media were very insensitive, how they handled our sister’s case even though we were fortunate to have the media coverage that we did,” she explained.
Delilah Saunders also explained how a counsellor referred through the Nova Scotia Department of Justice’s victims services acted inappropriately towards her. She said the male counsellor kept commenting on Loretta’s looks and at one point, placed his hand on her leg.
“I wanted a different life.” – Monique Fong-Howe
Monique Fong-Howe travelled from Halifax, to Membertou to tell her life story as a survivor of violence and abuse.
Fong-Howe, who works with the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, said the pre-inquiry hearings held in Halifax in Jan. 2016 inspired her to share her story with the inquiry commissioners.
“I’ve been living here in the Maritimes for about 30 years now and many people see me in my role now as an advocate and a worker but they don’t know my history,” Fong-Howe explained.
Through tears, she recounted her childhood and teen years being sexually abused while growing up in Saskatchewan. She left home when she was 13 years old and was homeless for a period of time.
“I grew up living on the streets, being involved with drugs, being involved with drinking and partying,” Fong-Howe said.
“I was always in violent relationships. It seems I was attracted to violent men,” she recalled.
Fong-Howe said she got pregnant and had a son when she was 17 years old. She said lost her son for a while because of her alcohol and drug use.
While Fong-Howe was living in a women’s shelter in Saskatoon, her mother and step-father came to visit. They informed her they were moving to Nova Scotia and wanted her to join them.
At first, Fong-Howe said resisted the idea of moving but then decided to sell all of her belongings to a pawn shop owner in exchange for a ticket to Halifax.
“I would see more and more people go, from being murdered and killed and drug overdoses. I wanted a different life,” Fong-Howe said.
“I had all of the intentions of staying here for six months and here I am, 30 years later still here,” she said.
Halifax is “creepy” – Rebecca Moore
Rebecca Moore, a Mi’kmaq with the Pictou Landing First Nation in Nova Scotia, was born and raised in Halifax.
Moore told the inquiry commissioners about the sexual harassment and threats of violence she has experienced as an Indigenous woman living in Halifax.
“Halifax is a very creepy city,” Moore said.
“We have a lot of johns driving around all the time. We have a lot of sexual harassment on the street happening all the time,” she said.
Moore recalled a time when she was walking to her apartment around midnight when a car pulled up beside her with the trunk open.
“There were three guys in it. The driver got out and he cut me off on the sidewalk. The passenger had his door open and his legs out like he was going to jump out,” she recalled.
“I saw the setup. I caught the play. I didn’t let them get close enough to actually grab me or anything,” she said.
The Mi’kmaw woman explained she walked backward and went to her sister’s home nearby and “freaked out.”
Moore also told commissioners she has also been threatened with violence ever since she became active in the Cornwallis statue and Alton Gas protests. She explained that she and other Indigenous activists are more of a target by white supremacist groups as a result of their activism.
Day Two of the national inquiry’s public hearings in Membertou begin on Tuesday at 8:30 a.m.