Delilah Saunders is my hero. Somewhere in the time of protest that was fall 2016, gutted by Muskrat Falls, methyl mercury, environmental racism, and the destruction of another wild place, I realized that Delilah, on hunger strike with artist Billy Gauthier to protest Nalcor’s mega-project, was the sister of 2014 homicide victim Loretta Saunders.
“Some people have really big souls” I thought with admiration for her bravery, but my heart broke that, so soon after losing a sister, she had to get back up and fight for her culture and land. Not a year later, she’s fighting for justice again, this time for her sister Loretta (and all other missing and murdered Indigenous women).
Her testimony at the recent Membertou MMIWG Inquiry hearings was broadcast publicly . It’s not an easy piece of footage to watch (none of the testimonies broadcast from the hearing are), but if the families can get up and find the strength to speak about loss, violence, and systematic discrimination, it is our basic obligation as humans to listen and learn.
At the St John’s Native Friendship Center, in the coziest office ever, a recent sage smudge permeating the air, I’m somehow soothed by the web of tranquility Amelia Reimer weaves with her voice as she speaks, despite the fact that our conversation has veered to a painful place.
Amelia has just returned home from the Membertou MMIWG hearings, where she was acting in a support position. Grandmothers and elders were present at the hearings, Amelia spoke warmly of the many ways the Membertou community provided traditional supports to ease the difficulty of the process.
Leaving the hearings with gifts of sacred seeds, such as yarrow, the symbolism of hope and new growth speaks of a resiliency I find hard to imagine. Pulling growth and change out of pain on this level is nothing short of a miracle, and I’m in the presence of miracle workers. Asked how prevalent the experience of violence against Indigenous women is locally, her answer is terrifyingly simple.
“100 percent have or are experiencing it.”
I’m now understanding her calm demeanor is not a fluke, it’s a necessary job skill dealing with trauma. “Sometimes it’s a one smudge day, sometimes it’s more like four,” she explains of the comfort in spiritual connection to get her through it all.
I’m not going to leave feeling disheartened, however, Amelia makes sure of that. In what may be one of the most generous offers of time I’ve received, she takes the better part of an hour out of her day to patiently teach me things I should have known already.
Mary March and Shawnadithit are two different people. Mary’s real name was Demasduit, her skull is in a museum in Scotland. Tea dolls are not Inuit craft, but actually Innu, and these two cultures are much more distinct from eachother than I knew. How did I not know?
In the run of our chat, the name Dr. Chief Mi’sel Joe of Conne River comes up. I’ve heard of little else but the Pow Wow in Conne River. Somewhere between a kindly grandfather and a crafty fox, Joe is as shrewd a businessman as he is engaged as a leader. The story of Conne River and its growth into a First Nations band that has 0 percent unemployment on the reserve, and excellent education and healthcare, is a pretty inspiring one. But it’s so down to earth and “brass tacks” that Joe comes off super relatable, and just a smart, determined guy as opposed to a victim of the “great leader” ego.
As non-Indigenous Canadians grapple with the depths of the prejudice Indigenous Canadians live with, the MMIWG Inquiry brings some of the darkest parts of our nation to light. How we respond to that determines what kind of people we are, and what kind of country we will become. History will judge us on how we choose to move forward.