Everyone from local elders to big-city therapists have urged her to get over her son's death and move on with her life.
And for six years, Effie Bella Snowshoe has tried to heed their advice, discarding her son's possessions and taking medications – but the harder she tries to forget, the more she misses her son, Edward, who died in a federal prison cell after spending 162 days in solitary confinement.
"How does a mother stop grieving for a son?" she said by phone from Fort McPherson, NWT. "You can't. You just can't."
This week, she took a different approach. "I respectfully call upon you to act and provide redress for the harms that have been caused," Ms. Snowshoe writes in an open letter sent Tuesday to federal Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould. "Until then we will be unable to properly grieve the loss of Eddie and find personal healing."
Since Aug. 13, 2010, the day her son died by suicide at the maximum-security Edmonton Institution, Ms. Snowshoe has grieved quietly at home in Fort McPherson, a remote Gwich'in community along the Dempster Highway. She has marked his passing with regular graveside visits, prayer and daily renditions of Go Rest High On That Mountain, a mournful country song by Vince Gill.
In 2014, she started looking for legal assistance after an Alberta death inquiry and a subsequent Globe and Mail investigation found a pattern of neglect in the way the Correctional Service of Canada handled her son's incarceration. As a single mother in a remote northern community, however, Ms. Snowshoe had difficulty finding assistance.
"There are very little social supports available to her never mind legal support," said Vancouver-based Gwich'in lawyer Kris Statnyk, who is helping Ms. Snowshoe access the justice system, but says he doesn't have the experience or specialization to adequately represent her. So she decided to turn to the new Justice Minister. Her one-page letter, which makes reference to their shared indigenous heritage, comes at a time when the country's policy on solitary confinement is set to change. Justin Trudeau's mandate letter for Ms. Wilson-Raybould calls for the implementation of recommendations from the Ashley Smith inquest concerning "the use of solitary confinement." Those recommendations include setting hard limits on the number of days an inmate can spend in solitary – 15 consecutive days, up to a maximum of 60 days in a calendar year.
A spokeswoman for Ms. Wilson-Raybould said the minister's office is working on a reply to the letter, as well as a full review of the Correctional Service's response to the Smith inquest recommendations. "We are aware of Ms. Snowshoe's letter and have expressed our sincere sympathies to her and her family," Joanne Ghiz in an e-mail said. "The high (and growing) rate of Indigenous Peoples in custody is not only a matter for concern, but an indicator of the health of our society as a whole. We can and must do better to address this growing problem."
The missteps that preceded Mr. Snowshoe's death are well documented. Prison staff lost track of how long he'd spent in segregation and largely ignored his deteriorating mental state. His written request for removal from segregation was lost until months after his death. "There are a number of aspects of Edward Snowshoe's treatment while in custody in Canadian correctional institutions which would justify an apology," said Adrian Wright, a lawyer who represented the Snowshoe family at the provincial inquest.
Despite the many public references to her son, Ms. Snowshoe says she's never received a private call from the federal government regarding his death. "The justice system you are charged with overseeing is simply not accessible to me," Ms. Snowshoe writes. "However, if there is a continued failure of Canada to act then I must consider all options available for bringing justice and healing."