Loretta Saunders, the Inuk university student writing her thesis on missing and murdered aboriginal women, was killed on the same day native women delivered a petition to Parliament, signed by more than 23,000 Canadians, demanding a national inquiry into the issue.
That connection haunts Cheryl Maloney, a native leader in Nova Scotia – and it has also compelled her to act.
Ms. Maloney, the president of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association, is organizing a vigil on Parliament Hill at noon on March 5 to honour Ms. Saunders and other missing and murdered indigenous women. Delilah Saunders-Terriak, Ms. Saunders’s younger sister, has also called out for vigils to be organized across the country this month – and is receiving offers of help.
Ms. Maloney has no clue as to how many people will show up, or how the vigil on Parliament Hill will be structured. She simply believes “something big has to be done.”
So far, repeated demands for an inquiry – including as recently as Friday – have fallen on deaf ears. But Ms. Maloney hopes that Ms. Saunders’s story and her quest to shine a light on the issue that captivated so many Nova Scotians will do the same across the country.
“She broke the stereotype of what people can accept as missing and murdered aboriginal women,” said Ms. Maloney. “It’s easy for people to say ‘okay, they were on drugs. It’s okay, they were a sex trade worker.’ That’s not the whole story of who is going missing and murdered.”
Ms. Saunders was a 26-year-old Saint Mary’s University student, studying criminology. She had dreams of becoming a lawyer and hoped to return to her Labrador community as a role model.
What struck Ms. Maloney about the support for Ms. Saunders’s family as they searched for nearly two weeks was that it was strong, immediate and not along ideological lines. “People genuinely cared. People were kind. I don’t think Canadians take the same position Stephen Harper has of indifference to the issue of aboriginal women going missing …,” she said.
There are reports that at least 800 native women have been murdered or gone missing since 1990. Since September, there have been eight aboriginal women who have been killed, according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Ms. Saunders is one of the eight.
“This is about patterns … if you are an indigenous woman and you are five times more likely to be murdered than I am, then there is a pattern,” said NDP Halifax MP Megan Leslie. But what is different with Ms. Saunders’s case, she said, is that “we are paying attention and the collective ‘we’ care about this.”
“People have actually said her death won’t be in vain,” said Ms. Leslie. “What the reason is I don’t know exactly. But I am thankful.”
The Assembly of First Nations, which has repeatedly called for a national inquiry, noted that Ms. Saunders’s death provoked an increased awareness in a larger Canadian audience.
AFN Alberta Regional Chief Cameron Alexis, who speaks on this issue for his organization, is hopeful that it can “turn the balance” politically. “There is a public outcry here and what are we doing about it?” he asked.
Ms. Saunders went missing on Feb. 13. For two weeks, her family, many of whom live in Labrador, were in Halifax searching for her. Last Wednesday, her body was found dumped in a wooded median of the Trans-Canada Highway in New Brunswick.
Two people – Blake Leggette, 25, and his girlfriend, Victoria Henneberry, 28 – who were subletting her apartment for the past month, have been charged with first-degree murder. They were arrested near Windsor, Ont. on Feb. 18 and initially charged with stealing Ms. Saunders’s car.
Police believe Ms. Saunders was killed in her apartment.
Ms. Maloney, meanwhile, hopes Ms. Saunders has started something with her research.
“I think it’s up to Canadians and Canada to step up and finish her thesis and finish this story,” she says.