VANCOUVER — Diane Lilley waited nearly two decades for a suspect to be arrested in her sister’s murder, only to sit through a trial where she says her beloved sibling Tina Washpan was often referred to as simply “the hooker.”
The dismissive treatment of her sister in death mirrored the way she was treated in life, said Lilley. The siblings from Carmacks, Yukon, were separated in the ’60s Scoop, when indigenous children were taken from their parents and placed in non-indigenous homes.
Washpan, whose adopted name was Cindy Burk, became involved in the sex trade. Her body was found near the Alaska Highway in 1990 and in 2009, a British Columbia man was found guilty of second-degree murder in her death.
Today, Lilley still has questions.
“Why did it take 20 years for my sister’s killer to be found? What was the reason?” she asked. “There are a lot of family members who are missing their loved ones and they need answers.”
Lilley is among the dozens of relatives of missing and murdered indigenous women who are expected to share their stories with a national inquiry in Whitehorse where a ceremony will be held Monday before community hearings start Tuesday. The hearings begin as the inquiry faces intense criticism from families and indigenous groups across Canada about poor communications and delays.
In Whitehorse, families and advocates feel a mixture of hope and anxiety. People who’ve lost loved ones are eager to finally share their experiences but have questions about how their stories will be used, advocates say, while the short timeline is prompting fears that families outside the city will be left out.
“I’m excited about it, that we’re the first one in Canada, but I feel like sometimes we’re being rushed,” said Lilley. “We get last minute notice. There’s not very much planning.”
Doris Anderson, president of the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council, recently lost her cousin Sarah MacIntosh to a suspected homicide. Anderson expressed fears that not enough “after care” would be provided to families who are set to relive their trauma.
“It’s really hard when a family member comes up and says to me, ‘OK, now what? I’m going home but there’s nothing in my little community to help me,’ ” she said.
Inquiry spokeswoman Bernee Bolton said a health team has met with families and survivors across the territory to make sure they have the help they need and have been offered a support person to be with them when they speak.
The inquiry’s legal team has also explained the process and offered a range of options for participation, including speaking publicly at the hearings, talking privately to a statement-taker or providing art or a self-recorded video, she said.
About 40 people are expected to share stories in a range of formats, Bolton said, adding that the commission could return to Yukon in the future.
Chief commissioner Marion Buller stressed the importance of mental-health supports in an interview.
“It is not just as straightforward as picking up a phone for example and talking to a statement-taker. The health team has to get involved in there, too,” she said. “This is traumatic for a lot of people.”
A sacred fire lighting at sunrise was scheduled for Monday before a traditional feast and cultural program in the evening. On Tuesday, hearings begin inside an outdoor tent at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre and conclude Thursday with a closing ceremony.
Other community meetings have been delayed until fall, but the first hearings are going ahead in Whitehorse because of the willingness on the part of the people there, said Buller.
“We wanted to honour the North because so often the North gets left out,” she added.
Yukon has also formed an advisory committee that aims to ensure that families, First Nations and aboriginal women’s groups are meaningfully included in the inquiry. It potentially helped pave the way for Whitehorse to be the first stop, said advisory committee co-chair Jeanie Dendys, who is also the minister responsible for the women’s directorate in Yukon.
Forty-one indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered in the territory over several decades, said Dendys.
“The impact is profound,” she said. “We have a really small population in Yukon, so there are a lot of really strong personal connections and when someone is lost to violence, it impacts our entire community.”
Committee interim co-chair Krista Reid, president of the Whitehorse Aboriginal Women’s Circle, said the inquiry has been a bit rushed and communications have been flawed, but the commission has been responsive to concerns.
Reid said her group has begun to call the commissioners “grandmothers,” who will hopefully comfort, nurture and listen to families.
“I’m not saying that’s what will happen, but that’s what we’re hoping for,” she said. “We definitely don’t want to see some report on the shelf.
“But if we don’t have that evidence-based data that they’re here to find, it’s just going to be another violent case, another dead Indian. We don’t want that anymore.”
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