June 27th was the worst day of Nicole Gladue-Weesemat’s life. A year ago a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer came to tell her that her beloved mother’s bones were found thousands of miles away in rural Manitoba.
Gladue-Weesemat says she experienced a physical pain that felt worse than childbirth, and, she said, “and it’s still hurting."
Although her mother, Gloria Gladue, 44, a petite, pretty, First Nations mother of seven children, had been missing for close to three years, she wasn’t prepared for the news of her murder.
Gladue disappeared from her home community of Wabasca, Alberta, in the fall of 2015. Her family and children conducted countless searches, prayed and pleaded with the public for help in finding her.
Gladue-Weesemat, a member of the Big Stone Cree Nation, Alberta, along with two of her siblings even testified at the National Inquiry for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls hearings in Edmonton. She had hope in the inquiry, and that it could help provide the family with answers. But less than six months later, Gladue-Weesemat learned the horrifying news and any spark of hope faded.
After swallowing the gut-punching agony she felt that day, it was up to her, the oldest of Gladue’s seven children to break the news to her siblings. “It wasn’t easy to do it over the phone,” remembered Gladue-Weesemat. “My brother fell to his knees and I’ve never heard someone cry like that before.”
Grant Arthur Sneesby, 68, was charged with second-degree murder and offering an indignity to remains. He is scheduled to stand trial in Peace River, Alberta, in March 2020.
Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, often referred to by the initials MMIWG, materialized in the form of a 1,200-page report with 231 Calls to Justice for governments, organizations and the public to implement.
See related coverage: National MMIW Inquiry details Canada’s ‘race-based genocide’
The report states the actual number of missing or murdered may never be known, but some organizations estimate the number is higher than 4,000.
Indigenous women and girls make up just four percent of the Canadian population, yet the inquiry found that Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than mainstream populations. It also found that Indigenous women and girls are 16 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than white women.
Report commissioners called the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis a genocide sparking an online backlash from opinion columnists and academics alike denying and debating the shocking denunciation.
It’s a narrative that’s continued to play out in the days since and families of the missing and murdered indigenous women are affirming what they’ve known to be true all along. That a genocidal epidemic is killing Indigenous women and girls.
See related coverage: The national MMIW report’s use of the word genocide sparks an international debate
Eva Potts, Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, is the younger sister of Misty Potts. Potts went missing in 2015. Eva Potts says her sister was outgoing and held a masters in environmental studies. No progress has been made in solving her disappearance.
Eva Potts was pleasantly surprised to learn the term genocide was used in the report.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God’ they’re finally catching on,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that think we’re trying to victimize ourselves as Indigenous women and get free money or whatever. But, it’s not about that. Our women are being targeted — it’s like we're garbage and it’s so easy for perpetrators to get off. There’s no justice.”
For a time after Eva Pott’s older sister Misty had vanished, Eva says she spiraled into depression, began overeating and partied as a way to cope.
She says she has since returned to practicing ceremony and a healthy lifestyle. She works to stay mentally and emotionally sound for her children and family. Otherwise, “the weight of the stress of everything would overtake me,” she said. She says she tries to occupy herself through working out, running a business and being a good wife and mother.
Misty Potts used to visit Eva in her dreams a lot, “and each time she came, it seemed like she was really there,” said Eva. But saying goodbye to her sister in her dreams was heart-wrenching and Eva would often wake up distraught. Lately, Eva says Misty hasn’t come to see her as much.
Meanwhile, with the June 3 release of the final report, Gladue-Weesemat says she’s doing her best not to read the negative comments about it on the internet. “There’s already enough heartache to deal with and I need to stay strong,” she told Indian Country Today.
“I don’t want to lose control. I’m a mother, a wife, a big sister,” stressing that it’s important for her to focus on her health, especially in preparing to attend her mother’s accused killers trial.
“I hope people out there will try to feel more empathy towards what the families of MMIWG are going through. We all have different opinions, but one thing we should agree on is that this is a crisis.”
She says has become a passionate advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls initiatives, organizing rallies and attending awareness walks. She also runs a Facebook group dedicated to her mother that helps other families in their search for justice. It’s something that helps her get through the hard days, she said.
But, even with the final report, Gladue-Weesemat says “closure may never come.”
“We found her (mom), yes. We buried her. That’s not closure. We are destroyed. We can only pray and hope that we can get through.”
Beyond the headlines of genocide and the atrocious findings of the final report another family member of a lost relative is struggling to take it all in.
Melina Laboucan-Massimo says she grieves the loss of her little sister Bella Laboucan-McLean every day. Laboucan-McLean was just 25 when she fell 31 stories to her death from a downtown condo in Toronto, ON on July 20, 2013. Bella Laboucan-McLean fell to her death while she was attending a party she was attending with five other people. Her body lay on the cold concrete alone until the police showed up. A woman had said she heard her body hit the ground. The other people at the party lay sleeping for 12 hours before noticing when police came knocking at the door. They told police that nobody saw or heard anything.
Laboucan-McLean had moved to Toronto from her small community of Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, Alberta, to pursue a career in fashion and arts. She is described by her family as creative, bright and determined. She dreamed of one day moving to London, England, to work in fashion.
Laboucan-Massimo recalls an indescribable pain upon learning of her sister's death. “The grieving is an on-going process,” she said.
Laboucan-McLean’s family said, “a false perception exists that she passed away because she lived a high-risk lifestyle.” They say they believe the assumption stems from the stereotypes held towards Indigenous women that are “unfair, and simply not true.”
“Regardless, the way Bella lives or the way any other Indigenous woman lives, should never justify the violence they experience in their lives,” states the family on a website dedicated to Laboucan-McLean and the investigation into her death.
“What puts Indigenous women in this society at risk is the ongoing legacies of colonialism-these issues are systemic. Blaming victims for their violent deaths are not going to result in the solutions we need to see for murdered and missing Indigenous women.”
There have been no leads into why or how she fell. Her death is listed as suspicious and her family remains frustrated with the on-going police investigation.
The report has brought up a lot of emotions and reignited trauma, said Laboucan-Massimo.
“I know it’s (the report) not going to bring my sister back, and it might not even help solve her case. But, as a whole in Canada, maybe it will help usher in understanding and support for ensuring the safety of Indigenous women in the future.”
Brandi Morin is an award-winning journalist from the Michel First Nation in Alberta, CA. For the last 10 years, Morin has specialized in telling Indigenous stories. Her most notable work has brought her to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network National News, the National Observer, CBC Indigenous and the New York Times.