Originally published with Planet S Magazine but since the MMIW and MMIWG inquiry first steps finished thought I'd share here too.
When federal Indigenous Affairs minister Carolyn Bennett and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould stopped in Saskatchewan for phase one of the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, they mentioned Darlene Rose Okemaysim-Sicotte by name.
She’s the co-chair of Iskwewuk E-wichiwitochik (Cree for Women Walking Together), a grassroots organization which supports the families and survivors of the missing or murdered women in Saskatchewan.
Community support has always been central to Okemaysim-Sicotte. She grew up on the Beardy’s and Okemasis Willow Cree First Nation as one of 14 children. She says they were a big, happy, family, but they always faced poverty. But neighbours helped each other when they could, which sparked her interest in community involvement.
Okemaysim-Sicotte continued her community work at the University of Saskatchewan, and later while working in the Department of Native Studies (now Indigenous Studies). In 2005, she gathered with around 80 other people to find a way to tackle the unaddressed issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. That was the beginning of Iskwewuk E-wichiwitochik.
I sat down with Okemaysim-Sicotte at her day job at the Gordon Tootoosis Nikaniwin Theatre to see what the proposed inquiry means to someone on the front lines.
When Iskwewuk E-wichiwitochik started the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women wasn’t on the country’s radar. What was that like?
In the fall of 2005, a bunch of us met at White Buffalo Youth Lodge. People just wanted to do something, they felt helpless. The first thing we did was plan an event to focus on awareness, remembrance, and supports to the families. A lot of the people who came to that initial meeting, they didn’t want to create a bureaucracy, they didn’t want to engage in politics. But the issue was political anyway because our leadership was required to be part of the solution.
When we had our first event on International Human Rights Day — Dec. 10 — about 180 people showed up. Since that time we’ve stuck to what works. We found that having no office works. We found that getting no government funding works. We found that not even being non-profit works because we have the freedom and the autonomy to really do the work.
I can’t remember the exact time when people started saying we needed a national inquiry. A woman in Manitoba was the first to create the hashtag MMIW and then it expanded to MMIWG to include girls. I think that halfway through the Conservative leadership, those 10 years, that’s when it started.
An inquiry became a big part of the federal campaign, and now the first step is beginning. How does that feel?
Basically, we just had to show up wherever someone was bringing the issue of missing women up, just to be sure that we [were] on track, and we are able to share that with families.
A lot of the time, families won’t navigate the system on their own after they built this trust and rapport with a group like ours. We are able to pull [information] for them, then they can [ask] us what’s going on. So as Iskwewukmembers we try to keep up with what’s being read, what’s developing.
On Dec. 8, when the new government announced the inquiry, we were very happy. During the press conference they mentioned Phase 1 and Phase 2, so those are things that we were able to work with especially on Phase 1 which is “how would you like to see [the inquiry] happen?” They have a few more sites to visit, then they’ll wrap it up, and start constructing phase 2 — the inquiry.
Part of what’s happening to the families is they get weary of new faces and building new relationships and building trust. So they tend to be very cautious because, in general, historically indigenous people have a trust issue with the government.
If the families get put in the margins, then I don’t think [the inquiry is] something we can help. Our job, as advocates, is to make sure their voices are first. That’s why you will see campaigns #familiesfirst
How was the meeting with the ministers?
I think what makes me feel really motivated is actually seeing the actions follow the words. Now, everybody says you have to walk the talk, well we are waiting to see if the ministers and Prime Minister Trudeau walk the talk.
Them showing up in Regina and Saskatoon, these are ministers, they didn’t have to be there, they could have sent some high profile facilitator to do this work for them. But they want to physically see the families, and hear themselves, what [they’re] going through. I believe they are really sincere about being here.
I think a lot of the families felt really relieved. That’s part of their healing. That’s part of their justice. They are able to voice their feelings, it’s not bottled up anymore.
Even myself, there were families saying things and I was like ‘I never thought of that’. That’s why we need all of those pieces to make the inquiry work. So, if we miss doing that we are wasting money, we are wasting time, and we are opening up old wounds for no reason.
It’s not going to be 100 per cent for every family, but I think we have to have a lot of hope that we are doing the right thing.
This interview has been edited for style and length.
Kelly Geraldine Malone is a freelance journalist, podcaster, and radio producer based out of Manitoba, Canada