MEMBERTOU, N.S. — Loretta Saunders was writing a master’s thesis on missing and murdered Indigenous women. And then she became one herself.
Now, her mother, Miriam Saunders, is vowing to continue Loretta’s activism to help First Nations communities and bring to light the injustices they face.
“Because of the passion she passed down to me, I want to continue her work,” said the Inuk woman from Labrador, during her testimony at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Membertou on Monday.
“Thanks to my daughter, she left something in me that I’ll never let go. I am tired of being one of the quiet ones.”
The Saunders family was the first to give testimony at the inquiry, which continue in the Cape Breton First Nations community near Sydney until Wednesday. Taking place at the Membertou Trade and Convention Centre, the inquiry will hear from approximately 40 witnesses.
Miram testified alongside her husband, Clayton Saunders, and daughters, Deliah Saunders and Audrey Saunders.
One thing the family stressed was how they experienced first-hand “white pass privilege.” This is when a First Nations person or other non-Caucasian person is treated differently because they are thought to be white.
“I saw how they played it out after she went missing and was found murdered,” said Miram, fighting back tears.
When Loretta first went missing she was listed as white. Every time Miram called police for information, she was transferred to an investigator and given updates. Then it was released that Loretta was Inuk and suddenly Miram had to deal with what she called “middle men” and couldn’t get answers.
“I had to curse at them and my father would be rolling in his grave. He didn’t like me cursing,” she said.
Loretta’s sister, Deliah, also testified on Monday, at times laughing as she shared good memories.
“She was my best friend, she was my other half … she guided me and helped support me in my life,” she said.
At other points she cried as she remembered how hurtful some media treatment had been toward her family, especially when a reporter texted her with news her sister was found dead before the family was notified.
“That’s not the way I should have been approached by the news,” she said.
Some, like Tyra Denny, 26, made their testimonies in private.
“People need to hear my story of my brothers and sisters in spirit … I see the issues in our communities and someone needs to take action,” said the Waycobah First Nations woman.
“I see that they keep talking about reconciliation so why aren’t we taking action? So I decided that I am going to move forward and take the action … I took the action today on bringing all the issues together into one issue.”
Denny was testifying as both a family member and a survivor. Even though she testified only to the inquiry’s commissioners, Oajaq Robinson and Michèle Audette, as well as some support people, she still found it difficult.
“I felt I had it under control. I felt I knew what I was walking into until I had to sit there and disclose everything that was hidden underneath me,” said Denny, an Aboriginal youth outreach worker.
“I didn’t realize it was going to be that powerful until halfway through it. So I took a little break.”
After her break, Denny was able to tell her stories with a “clear head” and hopes the inquiry will help others start their path to healing and help stop the “chaos” affecting First Nations communities.
“It was really emotional and empowering but I am empowering someone. That’s what I do and that’s what I strive for. I look for it every day,” she said.
During the opening remarks at the start of the day, Audette said they would be honouring the truth the families were telling and promising they shouldn’t be afraid the information will “end up on a shelf.”
“What we will be hearing this week will be taken to heart,” she said.
Testimonies will heard over the next two and the inquiry will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
First Nations people who are looking for support as family members or survivors are encouraged to call 1-844-413-6649. It is toll-free and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.