More support needed for grassroots work in Manitoba, advocates say after national MMIWG action plan

Bernice Catcheway went out two days ago with her husband to look for their missing daughter, Jennifer — just as they’ve been doing for 13 years.

“It’s every day we live it. Every day it’s a nightmare,” said Bernice Catcheway. “I just want to wake up now.”

Jennifer Catcheway was last seen in June 2008 in Grand Rapids, Man. — more than 400 kilometres north of her family’s home in Portage la Prairie. RCMP later ruled her case a homicide, but her remains have never been found. 

The family’s story is part of the final report by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which was released in 2019. On Thursday, the federal government released its action plan in response to the inquiry’s findings.

It includes broad and specific plans to prevent violence and support Indigenous women, girls and people who are 2SLGBTQQIA+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual plus).

Some of the plans include an education campaign on the issues, a group that would represent the interests of family members and survivors, and $2.2 billion in federal funding for these efforts over five years.

Catcheway is unimpressed.

Jennifer Catcheway’s parents, Wilfred and Bernice, continue to search for their daughter, who was last seen in 2008. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

“It’s affecting not only my life, but thousands across Canada. This action plan to me — I’m upset because it’s just more talk,” she said.

“I’m not a politician. I’m just a mother. I’m like thousands of other mothers who lost their children. I’m just a mother who wants to bring her daughter home.”

Along with national plans, the document also lists what each province is doing to prevent violence.

Manitoba’s page lists previously announced provincial funding and ongoing efforts to work with Winnipeg police in providing more supports for domestic violence survivors.

“It doesn’t reflect the work our Indigenous people are doing,” said Angela Lavallee, co-chair of Manitoba’s coalition for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The coalition applauded the federal government’s collaboration with Indigenous peoples during a news conference on Thursday. But members said Manitoba’s contributions appeared “vague” and could be improved if staff were more open to working with grassroots groups.

“Sometimes it can be tiresome, the work that we do,” said Lavallee. “Hopefully they can meet us halfway and help us a little more.”

In a statement, the province said the Department of Indigenous and Northern Relations is working with provincial staff and community groups to keep the work going. The statement also mentioned a new website with more details on its efforts.

‘What are we waiting for?’

Rachel Willan said the province should be paying attention to groups working to support Indigenous people like the Mama Bear Clan, Ogijiita Pimatiswin Kinamatawin and Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre.

Rachel Willan testified as a survivor during the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. She says any funding coming to Manitoba should go to grassroots programs. (Sam Samson/CBC)

“This action needs to start to happen today,” said Willan, who testified at the national inquiry as a survivor.

“I know which people helped me in my 14 years of recovery — coming from 20 years on the streets, being trafficked. Those dollars need to go to the right place.”

Creating safe housing is a goal mentioned several times in the federal government’s action plan. Willan says she hopes those plans can move quickly.

“What are we waiting for? Are we going to wait for six more months for safe houses to pop up? Because if I had my way, if I won a lottery, I would have five safe houses put up … because we don’t have any more room to keep losing lives,” she said.

“It’s time for us to wake up as a country and say, ‘let’s not let history repeat itself.'”

Isabel Daniels has been working to keep Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people safe for more than 10 years. (Sam Samson/CBC)

A safe house that’s looking to expand with the federal dollars earmarked for MMIWG is Velma’s House — a 24/7 safe space in Winnipeg run by Isabel Daniels. She’s been advocating for Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people since the disappearance and death of her cousin Nicole Daniels in 2009.

Daniels, from Sagkeeng First Nation, said she plans to apply for some of the federal funding to create a transitional space for people who are between detox and treatment. She also hopes more safe houses will be created in First Nations communities.

“There’s a lot of women who don’t stay in those shelters, and then they don’t ever make it back home because they’re stuck in the city. They end up getting entrenched, exploited and stuff like that,” said Daniels.

“There’s a huge ripple effect from people having to leave their home community to access the safe space. So I’m hoping that we’ll have a few in our first nation communities.”

Daniels said she hopes the plan is a way to “a better future” for the women, girls and gender-diverse people she works with.