A grieving mother, clutching a feather gifted to her by an elder, wiped back tears on Monday as she recounted the torment of losing her daughter – one of dozens of missing and murdered Indigenous women a public inquiry is investigating.
As the first witness to testify at the start of three days of hearings in Thunder Bay, Ont., Anita Ross told the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls of her mounting despair the evening her daughter, Delaine Copenace, 16, disappeared in February last year.
"She went for a walk with other teens," Ross, of Kenora, Ont., testified, as a photograph of her dead daughter sat on a nearby empty chair. "She never returned."
Ross said provincial police were initially dismissive of her concerns, suggesting the girl was probably just drunk somewhere. But Ross said Delaine, who had a twin sister, was responsible and always let her family know where she was. They began searching, putting up posters, contacting everyone they knew, activating social-media networks.
"I was so scared, really hurt not knowing where she was," Ross said. "It really hurts not knowing where your baby was. I was adamant to find her."
Ross said she felt she couldn't trust most of the provincial police officers she had to deal with. They seemed indifferent to her anguish, she said.
Scores of volunteers and officers would launch an exhaustive search for Delaine, but police called off their search after 14 days.
"That broke my heart," Ross said, tears streaming down her face. "It's like they gave up on her. I was so angry and hurt."
Several mornings later, officers arrived at her door.
"They told me they had found a body," she recalled. "I asked them right away: Is it my daughter? They said they didn't know yet. But I think they knew already."
Delaine had been found in the water, still wearing her favourite T-shirt, in Lake of the Woods in March 2016, several weeks after she went missing. Within two days of the grim discovery, the coroner decided the teen had drowned with no evidence of foul play. There would be no inquest, a decision that only added to her anguish.
The "garbage" coroner's report, Ross added, was sloppy and arrived without warning at her home via regular mail.
Her daughter, Ross said, showed signs of bruising and no bloating.
"Somebody hurt my baby," she said. "There's just no way my daughter was in the water all that time. I believe my daughter was abducted and held against her will."
Ross said the feather she was holding was given to her by an elder during the search. "He said, 'Think of it as your daughter'."
The hearings, in a city in which First Nations have long complained of racism, opened at a hotel with drummer women and the lighting of an oil lamp, traditionally used by the Inuit to provide heat and light in igloos and the North. Elders and support workers were on hand in purple T-shirts to help because "it does get heavy sometimes," said Barbara Sevigny, a health worker.
"Even if they're found, the murder is never solved," Sevigny said. "Let's hope something gets done."
One of the four commissioners, Brian Eyolfson, said solving the problem of violence would be a long-term process.
Co-commissioner Michele Audette, said it was important to acknowledge the purpose of the inquiry and the desolation felt by many relatives of the murdered and missing.
"A loved one disappears, a loved one got killed. And where was the system?" Audette said in opening remarks. "What we hear so far: They were so lonely."
The inquiry, Audette said, will allow Canada to "officially listen" to what went wrong and "our truth."
In all, about 50 family members and survivors are due to tell their stories during the two days of live-streamed public hearings and a third day of private submissions.
The federal government set up the inquiry in December 2015 to address the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The commissioners officially began the inquiry in September 2016 and were hoping to issue a final report by the end of 2018.
At least eight Indigenous students, in Thunder Bay for schooling, have been found dead in recent years – several by drowning.