The unsettling issues surrounding the long list of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada were drawn into sharp focus Thursday at the Nova Scotia legislature.
Relatives of Cassidy Bernard, a 22-year-old mother of infant twins, delivered heartfelt statements to remind the province about the Mi’kmaq woman’s mysterious death in October, a crime that remains unsolved.
“Our lives are precious and our lives matter,” said Annie Bernard-Daisley, one of Bernard’s cousins. “For far too long, since colonization, our women have been hunted. When I say hunted, they have been murdered and gone missing without a trace.”
Bernard’s body was found by police in We’koqma’q First Nation on Oct. 24. Her twin girls, five-and-a-half months old, were found dehydrated in a crib next to their mother.
The We’koqma’q band council is offering a $100,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction.
On Thursday, Bernard’s relatives also met briefly with Premier Stephen McNeil and other members of the legislature.
“We come to you today to show you what (missing and murdered Indigenous women) look like, and who is left behind to suffer with tremendous grief,” Bernard-Daisley said as two of Bernard’s sisters, Tyra and Renee, held a large portrait of the young, brown-haired woman.
“We come to you today to beg and plead that all our levels of government come together to create change, create movement and not to wait until another daughter is stolen.”
She said Indigenous chiefs should meet with local police and the provincial Justice Department to ensure immediate action is taken when Indigenous women are reported missing.
As well, Bernard-Daisley called for cold cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women to be reopened, and she asked for policing resources to be expanded for all First Nations communities.
She also called on all levels of government in Nova Scotia to draft a declaration to say all Mi’kmaq women in the province will be protected and that violence against women will not be tolerated.
In November, hundreds of marchers blocked the Canso causeway connecting Cape Breton to mainland Nova Scotia to raise awareness about what Chief Rod Googoo has described as a murder.
Police have said little about the case, except that they believe it wasn’t a random act and their investigation could take a long time.
McNeil said his government is proud of the work it has done on Aboriginal justice issues, and is waiting for the recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls on June 3.
“We’ll look at those to continue to ensure that … the Mi’kmaq see the justice system as something that’s there and able to work for them as opposed to something that is adversarial,” he told reporters.
Inside the legislature, Progressive Conservative member Allan MacMaster read a statement, saying the families of the many missing and murdered Indigenous women have been left to feel like the women are being hunted.
“Work remains to give faith and hope to women everywhere that places like this legislature care about what happened to Cassidy and other missing and murdered indigenous women,” said MacMaster, who represents a Cape Breton riding.
Lorraine Whitman, president of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association, said the three-year federal inquiry had exposed an epidemic of violence.
While Indigenous women make up only four per cent of Canada’s population, they account for 16 per cent of the female victims of homicide, she said.
“It’s hard to imagine that anyone could deny that these statistics do not qualify as a national tragedy,” she said.