Senseless death highlights national tragedy

Michael Johansen
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It was a chilly day on Parliament Hill, but not the bone-freezing cold most northern people know back home — not least those there from Labrador.

As noon approached (on Wednesday last week), a couple dozen people had gathered around the Peace Flame at the main entrance to the Hill. They weren’t there for the warmth, but because it’s a convenient muster point for anyone visiting the Houses of Parliament, whether as tourists, petitioners, protesters or even mourners.

The numbers kept growing. Those who arrived first helped to hand out large photographs and unfurl long banners.

When the whole crowd walked further up the hill to stop at a broad flight of stairs, from which several guests could speak, it had grown to at least 150 people.

More arrived every minute. By the time a troupe of Inuit drum dancers in white parkas sang a sombre welcome, almost 300 were listening.

The purpose of the gathering was clear on one banner: “In memory of Loretta Saunders/August 25, 1987 to February 13, 2014/Call for National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women.”

The first speaker was a cousin of the young Happy Valley-Goose Bay woman who had recently disappeared from Halifax and more recently been discovered dead, her body abandoned beside a highway in New Brunswick.

As Holly Jarrett spoke of one way the events had changed her family, she reminded her audience that at heart, all great tragedies are private matters of personal loss, no matter how widely their impacts come to be felt.

Jarrett, however, was not just there to remember her cousin, but to also try to give Loretta’s senseless death some meaning, which is also why the event was prepared and hosted by such reputable organizations as Pauktutit and the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

Given especially that Saunders had dedicated years of study to the question of why so many aboriginal women went missing and were killed, those who attended the gathering on Parliament Hill wanted the Labrador woman’s fate to remind Canadians of all the other women who are still missing and the many who were found dead.

They want the Conservative government to consider Saunders’ death the last straw and to call a full inquiry to investigate the ongoing situation.

One question not raised during the memorial was one that has nevertheless been raised elsewhere, both in Ottawa and Labrador.

Asked in sympathy, the questioner wonders if maybe the Saunders case doesn’t quite fit into the situation of missing and murdered aboriginal women, given that she was probably not attacked because of her heritage.

To be blunt, this might be true, but it is irrelevant.

Why should the attacker’s motive determine how a case is regarded? Loretta Saunders, like many hundreds of other aboriginal women across Canada, went missing in suspicious circumstances. Then Loretta was found too late, just like hundreds of other aboriginal women.

Some of the murderers were caught, but many were not. No one knows why any of the missing women were abducted, or why many of them were murdered. It matters nothing that maybe some of them, like Saunders, were not attacked because they were aboriginal.

The significant difference between Saunders and all the others is that she got the attention she needed. The police acted promptly and most of the mysteries surrounding Saunders have been revealed, or will be in the course of a trial.

However, mystery still cloaks what happened to all the others, so now Saunders, who wanted to know about them when she was alive, can still help them when she is dead.

Her example shows what should be done to look into every remaining mystery.

An official inquiry is a good place to start, remembering that the ultimate goal is to make sure no one else gets hurt.

The government has declared an inquiry into the horrible situation to be unnecessary (just as it rejects an investigation into the search and rescue system), explaining that everything is already known and what’s needed now is action.

Minister Peter MacKay, however, did not elaborate on any plans to bring help to endangered aboriginal women, which probably means nothing will be done until after the government changes.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: Native Women, Association of Canada

Geographic location: Labrador, Happy Valley, Goose Bay Halifax Ottawa Canada

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