First it was one niece, murdered just over a decade ago, and then, within a few months, another, both lives cut short before the age of 31. A few years later, a third niece, age 23, was killed.
For Levinia Brown, 69, of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, the pending inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women means both bringing up painful memories of lost loved ones, and the chance to speak publicly of the pain and grief common to many families in the North.
It's also, she hopes, an opportunity for Inuit voices to be heard.
"We need to talk about it, and heal from it. But it's a very difficult subject," she said in an interview. "I'm appreciative that it's being paid attention to. At least people are going to have awareness that this has happened, and let's stop it, because we don't want any more hurting families."
As attention grows to the issue of violence against indigenous women and the upcoming inquiry, some Inuit family members are concerned their perspective will be overlooked. Inuit represent a minority – 4 per cent, though fast-growing – of the aboriginal population in Canada. On a per-capita basis, however, the North is home to Canada's highest homicide and family violence rates, which many say require urgent action.
In a report on its pre-inquiry consultation to be released Tuesday, Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada – a national organization that represents Inuit women – highlighted a need to ensure Inuit priorities will be addressed. Inuit voices "want to be heard, our people remembered, and on our terms," it said. There is, however, "concern that because Inuit are a small population, their issues and concerns will be overshadowed in a pan-aboriginal process."
Inuit leaders have repeatedly said their population faces distinct challenges, among them isolated communities, overcrowded housing in a colder climate, severe food insecurity and a dearth of services including women's shelters – with what services available not always accessible in Inuktitut.
Another submission, by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), a national advocacy organization, and Tungasuvvingat Inuit, a service provider, was sent to the federal government last month, based on their own pre-consultation process among Inuit families, elders and service providers. Anna Fowler, ITK director of health and social development, and Qajaq Robinson, a lawyer with Borden Ladner Gervais, co-facilitated the consultations, visiting four communities in four regions which involved travelling 18,000 kilometres over nine days in March.
The key concerns they heard from participants included: the justice system response to violence against women; the child welfare system; a history of colonialism; government interference in communities – from forced relocation to residential schools; a lack of resources; lack of capacity; systemic racism and indifference; and a dearth of health and mental-health services as well as trauma and addiction services.
"Inuit want to participate in a process that respects their culture, language, history and respects their values. I think that the most fundamental thing we heard was the importance of a process that is reflective and respectful," Ms. Robinson said.
They describe the atmosphere as that of trepidation mixed with hope – a strong desire that the inquiry's outcome doesn't wind up as yet another report that gathers dust on shelves, that the process is apolitical, that at least one of the commissioners is Inuit and that both women and men, young and elderly have a chance to provide input.
The participants, Ms. Robinson said, want to ensure access to healing and support services are in place before, during and after the inquiry. "The concern is that the process must not hurt people more. That it is productive."
Inuit women and girls face elevated risks of violence. At least 47 Inuit women have been murdered in recent decades, and half a dozen since 2000 are missing, according to The Globe and Mail's database. In 2014 alone, Statistics Canada data show, three Inuit women were murdered, representing 10 per cent of the victims of homicides of aboriginal women in that year.
An oft-cited 2014 RCMP study showed a total of 1,181 aboriginal women were murdered or went missing in Canada. The report did not specify how many of them were First Nations, Métis or Inuit. But it did show 77 indigenous women were homicide victims in the three territories between 1980 and 2012, and that the North had the highest share of aboriginal homicide victims in the country.
Actual numbers of missing and murdered Inuit women may be higher than official counts, Pauktuutit noted, for various reasons, among them that their ethnicity may not have been recorded, or that some families feel some deaths were recorded as suicides or accidental deaths, when they suspect they were homicides.
In Nunavut, Yvonne Niego has attended the pre-inquiry meetings, and says she often heard participants say "the common thing I've been hearing is that Inuit need something specific to Inuit." Ms. Niego, who spent 25 years with the RCMP and now works for the Nunavut government, sees the inquiry as an opportunity to hear from Inuit families, and for healing.
One area of concern is the transition when Inuit women or youth head south, for health-care services or education. "You're talking about young women and girls who are coming from isolated communities … and they land in a city where they don't know anybody. It's a concrete jungle. And you think you can trust people, because that's been your experience back home … you're [more] likely to fall into circumstances that are going to lead you into trouble," said Rachel Dutton, executive director of the Manitoba Inuit Association.
Another issue is a lack of victims' services and women's shelters in the North. Nunavut, for example, has just five shelters in a territory that spans three time zones. The recent federal budget pledged more money for shelters – but one fund is geared strictly for First Nations (which doesn't include Inuit communities); of the other, $89.9-million fund, Nunavut is receiving $500,000 over two years.
"We don't have enough shelters at this time, and $500,000 does not go very far in Nunavut, with the cost of living," said Monica Ell-Kanayuk, Nunavut's deputy premier and minister responsible for the status of women in an interview. Among all three territories, "we always seem to be saying we are different up here, we cannot be going by population all the time."
It's easy to get overlooked when a group is in the minority of the population, noted Ms. Dutton, "and so Inuit feel further marginalized even within their indigenous community."
"However, when we're looking at issues of violence against women and the degree to which women and children are dying by homicide … anecdotally the stats for women and children being killed in Arctic communities is startlingly high, when compared to a non-indigenous population or even compared with their indigenous cohorts."
Inuit, she said, "have a story that they want to have told through the national inquiry, but it's incredibly important that they're involved in the makeup of the national inquiry."
BY THE NUMBERS
Canada's aboriginal population is comprised of three groups: First Nations, Métis and Inuit.
Here is a look at the Inuit population:
60,000 Inuit in Canada as of 2011, about half of whom are women
4 per cent: the share of people who identified as Inuit out of the total aboriginal population. The pace of growth is far greater than among the rest of the population
73 per cent of the population live in Inuit Nunangat – an area comprised of four regions which stretches from Labrador to the Northwest Territories. Nunavut, where 85 per cent of the territory's population is Inuit, is home to the largest share of the country's Inuit population
27 per cent of the Inuit population now live outside their homeland, in cities such as Ottawa, Edmonton and Montreal
64 per cent of Inuit report being able to speak in an aboriginal language, mostly Inuktitut, a higher share than among First Nations (22 per cent) and Métis (3 per cent)
Source: Statistics Canada