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Issue of MMIW has far-reaching effects

Inquiry welcomed by local First Nations leaders
BORN INTO THIS Lorelei Williams (third from left) has been affected by the issue of missing and murdered Indgenous women in more ways than one. Facebook photo

All her life, Lorelei Williams has been living with violence.

Her aunt went missing in 1977, before Williams was old enough to meet her. She still hasn't been found.

In 1996, her cousin's DNA was found on serial killer Robert Pickton's farm.

Another of her cousins was later abducted by a different serial killer and raped in the mountains before escaping.

Just a few years ago, another of her aunts was pushed out of a window in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

"I was born into this," said Williams, a member of the Skatin First Nation, part of the In-SHUCK-ch Nation.

Since 2012, Williams has been raising awareness around the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) through her dance troupe, Butterflies in Spirit.

The announcement from the Government of Canada that it is launching its promised inquiry into MMIW brought her to tears.

"I couldn't believe it. I started crying," Williams said of her reaction to hearing the news.

The sad truth is that Williams is not alone.

There are 1,181 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, according to the government. Though Indigenous women make up just four per cent of the Canadian female population, 16 per cent of women murdered in Canada between 1980 and 2012 were Indigenous.

"This is certainly a problem where every First Nations person that I know is affected by this issue. We all know somebody who is murdered or missing, and that's unacceptable," said Chief Ian Campbell of the Squamish Nation. "Our women deserve to be protected and shown that their lives matter, so this commitment to move forward with the inquiry, I think it really alleviated a lot of the pressure in the communities."

Chief Dean Nelson of the Lil'wat Nation said the inquiry has been a long time coming.

"Based on the statistics it should have been attended to a long time ago, and I just feel it's long overdue," Nelson said. "I guess the biggest thing for a lot of people I've spoken to was they'd like to see closure for families."

But ending violence against women begins with men, and Nelson is leading a newly formed men's healing group for members of the Lil'wat Nation.

"I, as a leader, have accepted a commitment stick that states I, as a leader, will do all in my power to protect the women in my life: my mother, my sisters, my daughter," Nelson wrote in a follow-up email.

"I would then make some more commitment sticks and pass them on to members who also would commit to create safety and change for the women in our lives."

The "commitment stick" is a reference to ancient First Nations warriors, who, when protecting their values, would stake themselves to the ground and not abandon their post despite opposition.

But the issue of MMIW is about more than First Nations people, Campbell said.

"It's outrageous that there would be no accountability, from all sides, to look at the factors and the connectivity and the systemic issues that have led to this issue," he said. "It's not just a First Nations issue, it's an issue of Canada, and as a society how do we protect and make everybody feel safe within our own lands?"

It's unclear what the inquiry will look like, but Campbell said it would be best if the scope included all levels of government.

"That would be the optimal outcome, is to have full participation at all levels, and that's something that we're hearing from the families who are directly impacted by this issue wanting that level of inquiry to occur," he said.

Williams said that, ultimately, she'd like to see the government implement all of the recommendations posed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — as well as those that have come from various other reports and inquiries.

"It's so hard to say — because I need to see what's going to happen — if it's actually going to make changes," she said.

"Just the fact that the government is doing it is raising awareness of this issue, and people are starting to get it across Canada."

Though Williams was born into a violent world, she hopes for a better future for her two kids, aged 10 and seven.

Her daughter led a women's memorial march last year.

"I'm hoping for my daughter to grow up and understand this," Williams said. "And hopefully she can make good decisions growing up."