‘The courage to come forward’: Amelia Reimer talks about the upcoming MMIWG hearings

in Journalism/Q&A by

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry will be in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in the first week of March, reported APTN Wednesday afternoon. Amelia Reimer has been sitting on a provincial planning committee for the hearings. We asked her what to expect.

Q: Who are the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls In Newfoundland and Labrador?

A: It’s all walks of life. There’s some people on the list that we don’t know their names because that was always hidden from the media. Their names were always withheld, so some of those I can’t really speak to.

But for the ones whose families have decided to let the names be public it’s–I guess the stereotype with this type of violence across the country is that it’s sex workers, not that that should make any difference whatsoever. But here, it’s mostly domestic violence. The unsolved cases clearly we don’t know who committed those crimes. But for the ones that we do know it’s mostly domestic violence.

Who are the women? They’re all sorts of people. Even as I look at the quilt here where we have visual representation [the faceless dolls quilt on the wall in Reimer’s office]. They’re little girls, they’re elderly women. They’re mothers and daughters together. They are university students. They are mothers and grandmothers. They are small children. It touches so many people.

I do keep little boys on the list too. So I see some of the little boys too. Our list is not all male offenders. There’s a couple of female offenders, but for the most part it’s men hurting women. But unfortunately, we find that men hurting children is another way to hurt women.

Q: What communities are they from?

A: All over, really. But, it’s one thing to say where the victims are from, but then it’s another thing to say where their family members are from. So there’s a woman who is originally from Mattis Point out by Stephenville. She was killed out in Saskatchewan. Her mother still lives in Stephenville and her sister lives in Halifax. So where would they want to go to testify? Would they rather testify in Saskatchewan where it happened? Would they rather testify in Newfoundland where it’s home and they have the supports?

Q: What kind of participation are you expecting?

A: I expect probably 15 or so families from the province here to testify. But maybe more. It grows in a hurry. People almost think of it at the last minute, now with the #metoo thing going on. I know how many victims we have here, but talking about how many family members are willing to put themselves forward is another matter.

So even with the Saunders’ family, it’s coming up four years, it’s still so very raw for them to be coming forward. There were members of the Saunders family that did not get to go to Halifax. So I think they’re hoping to speak at the inquiry when it comes here.

The inquiry also wants to hear people talk who were survivors of violence. So kind of the near misses.  The ones who could have been one of the next victims. Those are testimonies people would much rather give in private most times, rather than public. So, it’s hard to talk about who’s going to be willing to go on APTN and CBC and everything else that way, as opposed to just sitting down with the commissioner or having it recorded one on one.

Q: Tell me about the courage it takes to come forward.

A: The courage to come forward–some of it is being worried about backlash from the other families, especially if the perpetrator is from the same community. So the majority of the violence that’s documented here is domestic violence, partner violence or family violence. As you are trying to bring one part of the community together to heal, you are also re-opening wounds for another portion of the community because of what their loved one had perpetrated on someone else. That makes it difficult in a lot of ways. Another thing that makes it difficult to come forward here is the sheer geography.

Q: What are people looking for out of this?

A: Some people are looking for justice. There are some unsolved cases or cases that were never prosecuted. You have other ones where people need to have it heard what went wrong in the process after their loved one’s death with the investigation and how people were treated. Those are things that are going to be talked about. What went wrong, what went right, what could have been done better.

Q: How long will the inquiry stay?

A: The inquiries have been lasting for days in each of the communities they’ve been going to. They do bring enough people in to take statements. There are multiple things going on at once. While public testimony is going on in the main room, there may be an in-camera session happening in another room and maybe another session happening someowhere else.

Q: What are the impacts of these stories on communities in Newfoundland and Labrador?

A: I think it’s very isolating for a lot of the families because it hasn’t been okay to talk about it for so long. People still try to say oh these things didn’t happen way back when here in Newfoundland and Labrador and that this is all new violence. You know, it’s really not. Some of it seems to be growing in frequency. But we’ve got indigenous cases going back into the 1800s, 1700s, so it’s not new violence. It has always happened here. But it’s something that people haven’t been willing to talk about. So I think that the families it has happened to I think they feel very isolated in that. They don’t realize they’re not the only ones.

Q: What would you like people to know right now about the hearings?

A: To not be scared of coming forward because there will be lots of support. Also, if people were involved with the pre-inquiry and have not heard from the current inquiry, they need to register again. Because the pre-inquiry unfortunately threw out all the information and contacts that they had gathered and started with a clean slate. That’s something that people need to know: if they haven’t been contacted recently by the inquiry and they want to be involved, they need to reach out to the inquiry and get registered. If they are having trouble getting registered, let me know if they need help with that process. And as far as the inquiry when we do get dates things are going to happen very fast, so to get in contact with people such as myself so they don’t miss it if that is important to them.

Q: You have provided health support during hearings elsewhere. What does support involve?

A: Some of it starts out being someone who is there with a friendly face and a tissue and a glass of water. And someone to speak to when you are breaking down. But my role has ended up being with the smudge, with the medicines. And so it’s watching everyone’s emotions as they get elevated–whether it’s angry or sad you know or falling apart and using the smudge bowl. It’s kind of managing the emotions in the room. It’s being there putting a hand on someone’s shoulder as they’re trying to give their testimony to help them get through. It’s a lot of different things. The medicines really do help.

A lot of ceremony is built in. There’s also acknowledgement of reciprocity. You’re coming forward and sharing a story, sharing parts of yourself, sharing a sacredness with the inquiry, and the inquiry is giving something back. So there are eagle feathers that were collected by the clan mothers at Haida Gwaii. Those are being given out to each person that testifies. Seeds for medicine, yarrow and other medicines. Not only medicine, but also seeds for new life and new growth.

After the inquiry is done and has moved on to the next place, there are supports available to family members as well. If they need to go to certain healing camp or a certain ceremony there is funding available to help them get what they need.

Q: What does the inquiry mean to you personally?

A: The actual inquiry itself is important to me partly because I keep the provincial database of missing and murdered women and children. And I’ve put a lot of research into it. Actually Lori-Ann Campbell started the database. I have kept it up and have added to it quite a bit, but she gave me a starting place. It’s a lot to take care of and to reach out to those families and to try to get the most accurate information you can.

We try to keep track of not only who, what, where, when, but, at the same time, who were they in life. Those are really important details. We used a lot of those kind of details as best we could in creating the quilt as well [the faceless dolls quilt with dolls representing different missing and murdered Indigenous women]. So someone’s holding a guitar because we knew that about them. Or they’re holding their bible or cross because we knew that was an important part of their life. You know we try to gather information on who was an artist, who was a musician and who was an activist. So even with Loretta Saunders, the one on the top left corner, one in, with the purple feather for the hair. We were told she liked lots of colour, so she’s got a purple feather in her hair. She was pregnant at the time of her death, so she’s got a heart on her belly for her unborn child. She was going to university and studying justice, especially involving missing and murdered Indigenous women, so she’s holding the scales of justice there as well. So little details like that we try to put into each doll as best we could. The more we knew about them the more accurate we can make it.

Q: What was the last name you added to the list?

A: The most recent name is Ryanna Grywacheski down in Marystown. That murder happened just before we had our vigil in October.

Amelia Reimer is a cultural support worker and programming coordinator at the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre.

Michelle Porter is the lead editor for The Independent. She holds a BA in Journalism, an MA in Folklore and a PhD in Geography. She is the recipient of 2005 Atlantic Journalism Award for feature writing and the recipient of 2016 NL Arts and Letters award for poetry. She has been long-listed for CBC Poetry prize in 2016 and 2017.