For the past six years, families who have lost a loved one have been brought together from across the country at special, commemorative events by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).
Known as ‘Family Gatherings,’ they’re an opportunity to honour a missing or murdered Aboriginal female family member, to ‘give voice’ to their story and share their journeys with one another.
NWAC hosted the first gathering in 2005 as part of “Sisters in Spirit” (SIS), a largely educational initiative that also developed and maintained a database of the hundreds of missing or murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada.
When federal funding for that initiative was discontinued in 2010, many wondered what would happen to the gatherings. The next year, it was discovered that new funding meant ‘Sisters in Spirit’ would evolve into a new campaign, ‘Evidence to Action.’
While the new campaign eliminated the database and limited much of the outright advocacy of SIS — changes that prompted much protest and condemnation by victims’ families and politicians — the family gatherings survived (the next one is scheduled for Jan. 27-29 in Ottawa).
But it turns out that was good news only for some families.
During the 2011 Christmas season, NWAC mailed out packages that included a holiday card, a memo about the 2012 family gathering and, in the case of at least 3 family members, a letter telling them not to attend. (A copy of the letter can be found at the end of this article.)
Among ‘non-invitees’ like Sue Martin, those letters have proven controversial. Martin’s daughter Terrie Ann Dauphinais was murdered in 2002. “To receive a letter like that kinda threw us over the edge,” says Martin.
Based in Ingersoll, ON — a few hours’ drive from Ottawa — Martin says she doesn’t understand why NWAC would tell her not to attend: “It was like salt being thrown into the wound all over again.”
Furious over the perceived snub, Martin asked NWAC to remove her daughter’s name from their database and told the organization that they are no longer to use her story. At least one other family has followed suit.
Bridget Tolley of Kitigan Zibi, QC received the same package from NWAC over the holidays. Her mother Gladys Tolley was struck and killed by a Sûreté du Québec cruiser in 2001.
“The families that are able to make it should not be told, ‘No, you cannot come,’” says Tolley. “It’s in your own city.”
Gladys Radek is the aunt of Tamara Chipman, a woman who disappeared in 2005 along the Highway of Tears in northern British Columbia. Radek also received a non-invite from NWAC.
“I don’t understand their mentality,” says Radek. “They are picking and choosing. You don’t pick and choose family members, I’m sorry.”
Radek says she had no intention of attending the 2012 event anyway: “They (NWAC) made their voices very clear that they want nothing to do with us and you know what? We can do without them.”
The letters coincide with a tumultuous time for NWAC.
The past two years have seen the ending of Sisters in Spirit after a very public and political battle for new funding; it’s also seen a shift in leadership in the election of a new president, Jeannette Corbiere-Lavell.
That instability has left some family members questioning the strength of NWAC’s political voice, overall leadership, and commitment to the cause.
“I feel like they (NWAC) sold us and threw us underneath the bus,” says Martin of NWAC’s transition away from Sisters in Spirit to Evidence to Action. “I think it has to do with politics. I think she (Corbiere-Lavell) bowed down to the government.”
Tolley agrees, adding bluntly, “I think the money has been more important to them. Things were strong and NWAC was powerful but these past few years, I don’t know what happened. It seems like it has gone downhill.”
Tolley is a co-founder of Families of Sisters in Spirit (FSIS), a non-profit group meant to support the families of missing or murdered Aboriginal women and girls.
It was while SIS awaited word on whether its funding would be renewed that FSIS formed. According to Tolley, as FSIS fought to keep SIS alive throughout this period, NWAC began to grow quieter. Tolley says this caused tension and division.
Radek agrees. “It had everything to do with funding,” she says. “If they (NWAC) didn’t shut up they weren’t going to get any kind of funding. It all boils down to the money.” And, Radek believes, to leadership. “When the new president took over, it changed from the family members’ issues to a money issue.”
“The reason why NWAC got the funding in the first place was because of those families,” says Radek.” “Now, that NWAC has turned their backs on them, they are vying for new families’ members.”
Irene Goodwin is the Director of Evidence to Action. She admits it was bad timing on NWAC’s part to send out the non-invites, but denies there was any negative or fearful motivation behind them. “One of the things that was pointed out in previous family gatherings was the lack of balance from the four directions,” she says.
The reference is to NWAC’s plans to have equal representation from each direction. Due to funding limitations, however, only four family members from each direction will be attending. “It is the first time we are doing this and I know it is a little bit of a change for some families. We can’t be changing rules to accommodate one group of people.”
According to Goodwin, funding is an issue right across the country. “While it may look like we are focusing on funding, we’re really focusing on the issue.”
“The problem might have been more of an attachment to the name,” says Goodwin, referring to the family members who feel left out. “The fact that NWAC had a department dedicated to the missing and the murdered (Sisters In Spirit) — all programs and initiatives do come to an end. Evidence to Action will be one of them.”
She applauds the work being done on the ground, especially by Families of Sisters in Spirit. “More needs to be done and we certainly do support our grassroots organizations. (But) we can’t be dealing with the issue of violence by poking at each other,” she says.
Del C. Anaquod, a professor of Indigenous Studies at the First Nations University of Canada in Regina, says that, in any given organization or community, internal debate and dissent is healthy and demonstrates democracy. But he also acknowledges the fine line aboriginal organizations have to walk when it comes to funding.
“I think everyone knows [that] who provides the money, many times has the influence or calls the shots,” says Anaquod.
“A lot of First Nation, Métis or Inuit organizations receive their funding from various levels of government,” he says. “Particularly from the federal government, if you speak out too much, you pay a price.”
Radek agrees that most organizations won’t bite the hand that feeds them and that is why grassroots organizations are key.
“Considering we’re an organization that is done by donation and volunteer, I think we’re a little more ahead of the game than they (NWAC) are right now because they’re being dictated to by the government,” says Radek. “Dictatorship hasn’t worked in addressing awareness for the missing and murdered women. It’s not gonna work.”
For Tolley, she believes the fight must go on for the families of the missing and murdered despite the government bureaucracy.
“I am trying to help everybody, even if it is the East, West or North direction,” says Tolley. “We are doing this out of the goodness of our hearts, we’re not getting paid for this.”
“We did fifty-two events in the past year for Families of Sisters in Spirit,” adds Tolley. “I wish there was some way we could all work together.” Still, Tolley admits she’s grateful NWAC is able to bring the families together.
Goodwin says NWAC has plans to further develop these relationships amongst family members through a mentorship program. It’s a scheduled agenda item for this weekend’s gathering.
For now, Goodwin encourages previous family members to find ways to work with new family members coming into the system: “These new families do need their input, those who have been involved and active for a long time, because they really are the people with the expertise.”
Below is a copy of the letter Sue Martin received from NWAC:
[ Photo credit: Tatum Wulff ]