Niece drives 18 hours on winter road to share her aunt's story at MMIWG national inquiry

Niece drives 18 hours on winter road to share her aunt's story at MMIWG national inquiry

For 18 hours, Bernice Thorassie thought of little other than her auntie, Ila Oman.

Thorassie drove the 300 kilometre winter road from her home community of Tadoule Lake to Thompson, Man., to share the details of her great-aunt’s brutal death with the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“I know my auntie wants me to share it. She wants me to know, she wants everybody to know, that what they did to her wasn’t right,” Thorassie told CBC News.

The inquiry is in Thompson, a small city about 650 kilometres north of Winnipeg, on Tuesday and Wednesday as part of a national tour visiting communities across the country to hear testimony.

The inquiry was launched by the federal government in September 2016 to look at underlying causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls, including systemic issues, and make recommendations to end the problem.

The Thompson hearings had time for eight family members or survivors to testify publicly before Commissioner Michele Audette. Others, including Thorassie, were scheduled to share their stories privately with a statement taker.

Thorassie was nine years old when her great-aunt died. At the time, she didn’t know Oman, with whom she spent some of her happiest times in childhood, had been murdered. 

“As I got older, I started thinking more about her,” she said about Oman, whom she remembers wearing bright red lipstick. “Her spirit was coming to me and it just wouldn’t stop — just come in my dreams, or I see a woman … with red lips and I think of Ila, right away,”

Ila Oman

In 1971, Ila Oman, a 43-year-old Sayisi Dene wife and stepmother, was raped and fatally beaten in Dene Village, in northern Manitoba. (Submitted)

Oman died after she was beaten and raped in Dene Village outside Thompson in 1971. Dene Village was a makeshift home to the Sayisi Dene after they were forcibly relocated from their traditional territory and lifestyle in 1956 and left outside Thompson, where they built shacks with items scrounged from the dump and struggled to survive.

Oman’s death remains unsolved, although there are rumours about what happened and who was involved. 

Thorassie said some of the people rumoured to have been involved in her aunt’s death still live in the community.

“How can you be so normal after what you did, is what I think to myself,” she said about one of the people she believes was involved. “How could you portray yourself an innocent person all of these years?”

Those believed to be responsible are Dene people, she said.

‘It’s everywhere’

Violence is a sad reality in many Indigenous communities, Audette said.

“It’s everywhere, regardless where we live.”

But the stories from northern areas of Canada are different from those in the south, Audette said. Last week’s hearing in Montreal included many different stories than those from a previous hearing in Northern Quebec, she said.

“I want to make sure that we also hear from families who live in the territories who face different realities than those in the south,” she said.

Audette was also at the Winnipeg hearing in October and anticipates the north to south differences will be similar to the differences in Quebec.

One difference that stood out was a lack of response from institutions or services such as the police and the justice system.

When the relationship between the family and police is good, the family doesn’t have to deal with extra stress associated with a lack of information about the standing of a case, she said.

“The stress of the family when they are expecting answer on where is my daughter or my mom … it’s not in the testimony,” she said. “It’s something else, it’s more how to support the family when they go through that trauma.”

However, a good relationship between MMIWG families and police seems to be rare, she said.

The inquiry will hold an institutional hearing on policing following the final community hearing, which is scheduled to happen in Vancouver next month.

Published at Wed, 21 Mar 2018 09:13:37 -0400