Healing Begins With a Single Step
by Bridget Tolley
On October 5, 2001 my mother, Gladys Tolley, was struck and killed by a police cruiser on the highway on the Reserve where she lived. Since that fateful night, I feel like I have been living in a bad dream, one I cannot wake up from.
On the night of my mother's death, the police force did not call the Band police which has jurisdiction for reserve justice matters. Instead, they summoned a doctor from the hospital who pronounced her dead at the scene and her body was sent directly to a funeral home. Then, the police force called in their own team of investigators. Shockingly this "investigation" was conducted by the brother of the officer who struck and killed my mother. In addition, the Coroner made his report without ever seeing my Mom and the case was closed without ever notifying my family of this change in status. These swift, secretive, self-serving actions have taken away what little faith I had in the police and justice system, leaving me with an ongoing mistrust of systems which have failed First Nations communities for generations.
In the days, months, and years following my Mom's death I felt lost and alone, with no one to turn to for help. The police who are supposed to be there to serve and protect, were confrontational, refused to share information about the case with my family or communicate with us in English, and treated me as a troublemaker because I wanted the officers involved to be held responsible for my mother's death. This experience has had a lasting and detrimental impact, as I have not been able to find justice or closure to help me through my healing journey.
It was not until the fall of 2009 that I began to understand the programs and services that are supposed to be available through victim services. In looking back, the police did not offer kind words or access to supports, and there was no one to help my family navigate the system or even take time to explain the processes of the investigation. My one sense of hope came through the Sisters In Spirit (SIS) Initiative with the Native Women's Association of Canada. Since 2005, Sisters In Spirit has provided support, understanding, and connections to other families, while giving voice and recognition to the discrimination and inequality experienced by Aboriginal women across Canada. Through SIS, I know that there are more than 520 missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls whose families are also searching for justice and finding any way they can to cope with the pain and trauma of losing their loved ones. My experiences with SIS have shown me that victims' families never give up. We may come together with heavy hearts, but in each other we find a renewed sense of courage, strength, determination, and hope.
I have continued on my crusade for action because I do not want my mother's death to become just another Indian woman's misfortune. However, it has been a long and arduous battle for justice. Today, I am still searching for justice, but, on my journey, I have found dear friends, allies, and supporters to help make my days easier and remind me that I am not alone. While I began my journey in isolation, I have found strength because of those around me.
If I were to achieve one thing with respect to victim services, it would be to see communities of support, particularly for families of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. Our experiences and our paths to healing are very different because, as Aboriginal Peoples, we have been faced with trauma and hardship for generations. So, as we think about victim's services today, these services must reflect this past, our unique histories and traditions, and the important recognition that is does not take a single individual to counsel through grief, but rather it requires an entire community to rebuild following traumatic loss.
As I work to keep the memory of my mother alive, I think of the many other mothers, sisters, daughters, aunties, and grandmothers who have been lost or stolen. Each year, on October 4, people come together to honour these women and girls and their families through the Sisters In Spirit vigils. Since 2006, these vigils have grown from 11 to 72 communities from coast to coast. These vigils are part of my healing journey and I am moved to see so many individuals, families, communities and Nations standing together to remember all the missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada and to acknowledge the injustice too many of us face. But my fight is not over. And so, I journey forward…
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