WHITEHORSE (NEWS 1130) – Frances Neumann searched tirelessly for her missing sister-in-law in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, only to learn from a newspaper article she had been dead for years.
Neumann, the first family member to speak publicly at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, urged the commissioners not to let Mary Smith John’s death be in vain.
Smith John fled Yukon after enduring the loss of an infant son and was found dead of an alcohol overdose in 1982. She had been in the company of Gilbert Paul Jordan, known as the “Boozing Barber,” who is believed to have plied multiple women with a lethal dose of liquor, said Neumann.
“These women were vulnerable. They had no protection. They were lost, but each one of those women had families that loved them,” Neumann said Tuesday, wiping away tears.
“We let them down. We did not protect them because they were weak. Because they were weak, no justice came to their aid.”
Neumann was among several relatives of disappeared or slain indigenous women who spoke at the first day of hearings in Whitehorse. Inside a white tent decorated with colourful blankets, families shared their stories of loss, heartbreak and outrage.
Jordan was convicted of manslaughter in the death of a non-indigenous woman in 1988. But he was linked to several aboriginal women’s deaths before then, reported APTN in a segment that was played at the hearing. He died in 2006.
Smith John was buried in an unmarked grave long before her loved ones learned of her death.
Neumann told the commissioners there can be no justice for her sister-in-law, but she wants her daughter and granddaughters to be able to walk the streets safely.
“We must stand up for justice for these women that have walked before us,” she said. “Please, please see this through. We have come up and waited for many years to see the results. Don’t sweep it under the carpet.”
Chief commissioner Marion Buller said in an interview she agrees with Neumann, and the commissioners are going to work hard to present practical recommendations.
“I’m with her on that 100 per cent,” Buller said. “We don’t want this work swept under the rug. It’s too important to all Canadians.”
The family of Elsie Shorty, a grandmother who was shot dead in 1992, asked the commissioners to consider a number of recommendations, including indigenous language interpreters for the RCMP and mentorship services for aboriginal youth.
The thread of residential schools ran through multiple stories heard on Tuesday. Smith John was sent to a government-sponsored boarding school, as was Shorty’s daughter, May Bolton.
Bolton said she went into “residential school survival mode” upon discovering her mother’s lifeless body inside a cabin. The phrase describes the coping mechanism she developed in school, in which she would shut down emotionally to endure trauma.
Shorty’s husband was charged with the murder of his wife, but the family believes he was innocent. He only spoke Dene and would reply to any question asked of him in English — including “Did you shoot your wife?” — with a simple, “Yes, sir,” said Bolton.
He was in jail for a short time before he was released and required to check in with the RCMP on a daily basis, said Bolton. He has since died, and none of the family members who testified Tuesday knew whether he stood trial.
Bolton broke down after listening to a relative testify that he heard a police officer call Shorty “just another native woman.”
“She was not just another native woman. She was my mother,” Bolton said, choking back sobs. “She was a wife. She was also a grandmother and a sister, and she was also an aunt and a friend to many who met her.”
Tuesday’s hearing began with opening statements from all five commissioners. Buller said Canada needs to hear the truth about the violence endured by generations of indigenous women and girls in order to have a better understanding of systemic violence, to find solutions and heal.
“Today is a turning point in our national history,” she said. “Now there is a national stage for the stories and the voices of the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls through their families.”
More than 40 people are expected to share their stories before the hearings conclude Thursday. Other community meetings will be held in the fall.
— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.