MMIWG inquiry hears from Prince Albert youth

Violet Naytowhow speaks about music as medicine at the two-day workshop for youth impacted by missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls at the Allan Bird Memorial Centre Gym. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

In the discussions surrounding the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), sometimes, it’s the youngest voices that get overlooked.

This week at the Senator Allen Bird Memorial Gym, it was time for those voices to speak up.

The Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC) held a two-day workshop for youth aged 15-24 who have been impacted by MMIWG, including immediate family members. Participants had the opportunity to explore two days of workshops and healing, and the chance to have their testimony heard by representatives from the national inquiry.

Terrellyn Fearn is one of the staff members of the national inquiry. She was in Prince Albert for three days – two days for testimonials (Tuesday and Wednesday) and two days for the workshops.

“We had been invited by the Prince Albert Grand Council and the provincial (Family Information Liaison Unit) to participate in the youth gathering,” she said.

“We are here to participate and do some outreach, and to provide an opportunity for young family members and survivors to register with the inquiry to share their truth. We have two statement gatherers on site so people can have their testimony heard.”

This is the furthest north in Saskatchewan the inquiry has heard any testimony at all. While this event was intended for youth only, that doesn’t make the information collected any less important.

“Young people hold the wisdom and the knowledge and the solutions. A lot of times in the outside world we don’t value their contribution, their advice and their voice, so through this process it is extremely important that we hear from them, that they provide solutions and guide us on the calls to action,” Fearn said.

She couldn’t disclose what the youths said in their private testimony, but Fearn had lots of dialogue and group discussions with the youth outside of that private setting.

“They shared a lot about what it’s like to miss your mother or a female figure – your aunt, your grandma, your sister, your partner – and what that means. What that does to you growing up. What it does to shake your foundation as you’re becoming strong and resilient. It impacts, for young women, the teachings that are passed on to them.”

She said part of the impact is young women don’t have those role models in their lives to teach them, celebrate them and help prepare with them as they become mothers themselves. The youth also spoke about the support they would have liked to have seen from their murdered and missing women and girl relatives.

“A lot of time there’s focus on supporting the larger aspect of the family and the community, and maybe a young person’s needs are a little bit different,” Fearn said.

Getting the commission to come visit Prince Albert for the workshop was a victory for the PAGC Women’s Commission, which planned and put on the event. They’re hoping the discussions started this week will be carried on in a larger format later this year.

“We’re hoping come July or August we’ll have a cultural event right here on the grounds for people to come and camp out for a couple of days and share their stories,” said PAGC Women’s Commission chairperson Shirley Henderson.

“We’ll have workshops again and do some healing.”

Henderson is also hoping the commission comes out to Prince Albert for a full hearing for members of the community who didn’t make it to Saskatoon can attend.

Conrad Burns and Pernell Ballantyne walked from Saskatoon to Prince Albert in February to bring attention to the fact that there was no hearing held further north than Saskatoon.

Ballantyne was walking for his sister, Monica Lee Burns, who was murdered in 2015. While he was able to go to speak at the Saskatoon stop of the inquiry, he and Conrad Burns know many who didn’t have that opportunity.

A Prince Albert stop is something Henderson also wants to see, but it would require the inquiry get an extension. In early March, the inquiry asked for a two-year extension to 2020 to complete its mandate. It was due to be complete this September, but inquiry staff has argued a chunk of time got eaten up by logistics, and there is still much listening work to be done.

“I was very pleased when (the inquiry) called me and said they were going to be in attendance and come and do statement taking and registering people at the (workshop),” Henderson said.

“Maybe there could be (a hearing in Prince Albert) if the national inquiry gets an extension. We’ve had a lot of support from Saskatchewan to host the inquiry in Prince Albert. Based on whether the extension comes through or not, we’ll know.”

For now, Henderson is happy the youth in attendance this week got to share their stories, hear from others and heal.

“It’s really important. They’ve gone through a lot of trauma, especially if it’s an immediate family member, and we had really good workshops here, such as grieving through music and stuff like that.”

Other workshops included asking for help teaching, traditional story telling, traditional life cycle and a safety workshop presented by Insp. Stonechild of the Prince Albert Police Service.

The three-day event ended Thursday evening with a feast and round dance.

This story originally appeared in the March 31 print edition of the Daily Herald.