New MMIWG monument a sacred place where families can gather and grieve

For 22 years, Sandra McNeil has never had a place to mourn her mother.

Dawn Carisse, who is Abenaki, disappeared in 2001 after fleeing the North Bay psychiatric hospital, where she had been admitted after a brain injury that caused short-term memory loss.

To this day, Carisse’s case remains unsolved.

“I don’t have a grave site or anything I can go to…visit him or talk to him,” McNeil said.

Having this monument here brings – not necessarily closure – but a place where I can come, because I don’t have that.– Laura Lacrosse, daughter of a murdered Indigenous woman

On the longest day of the year, McNeil joined dozens of other families under clear, sunny skies in a ceremony to connect with their mothers, sisters, daughters, cousins ​​and aunts, and ensure they are never forgotten.

The first monument for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) east of Winnipeg was unveiled last Wednesday on National Indigenous Peoples Day in Whitefish River First Nation, an Anishinaabe community of approximately 1 500 people located approximately 102 kilometers southwest of Sudbury, Ontario.

WATCH | The story behind the new monument for MMIWG

A new monument dedicated to the MMIWG will serve as a place of healing

Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls say a new monument in Whitefish River First Nation will be a gathering place to help them heal. The project has been in the works for years and is one of the few public monuments dedicated to the MMIWG in Canada.

It is a monument designed by families for families by Indigenous artists from Signature Memorials based in Orillia, Ontario.

“It’s a place where I can attend and visit and honor my mother,” McNeil said.

When the green tarp was lifted, cheers rang out among the audience, which included First Nations leaders, members of the Ontario Provincial Police and other dignitaries.

The applause was quickly followed by a strong wave of emotion that swept through the crowd.

For several minutes, no one spoke, some members of the family cried and everyone absorbed the symbolism of the monument.

Its round shape represents the continuation of life, while its base resembles a drum to mark the beats of the heart.

Daniel Opasinis said attending the unveiling of the MMIWG monument helped him reconnect with his culture.
Daniel Opasinis took a 12-hour bus ride with his aunt from Oshawa, Ontario to honor his mother Rachel Russell at a ceremony to unveil the first monument honoring missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Whitefish River First Nation. (Mathieu Theriault/CBC)

A space – a separation in the rock – descends in the center of the monument, signifying the missing.

“This circle could never be complete as these loved ones are still missing and we desperately want to bring them home,” said Meggie Cywink, a longtime Whitefish River MMIWG attorney who organized both the event and a healing retreat for family members before the unveiling.

Cywink also helped the families design the monument, a task she called a labor of love.

His sister Sonya Nadine Cywink was killed aged 31 in Elgin County, southwest of London, Ontario. There is a $60,000 reward available for information leading to the killer’s arrest.

“Families are stronger than you think,” Cywink said. “This project is about intergenerational healing.”

A place where families reconnect with loved ones, culture

There are no words on the monument.

Instead, an image of a dancer in a jingle dress, which is a symbol of healing, is engraved on the right with woven flowers in the middle, as well as strawberries, known as the “berry of the heart” in because of its form and its medicinal benefits.

“Don’t wipe your tears, you need this healing,” Laura Lacrosse told the families.

Lacrosse paid tribute to his mother Deborah Anne Sloss, whose 1997 murder in Toronto remains unsolved.

She said the location of the monument suited her personally since her mother was born up the road in Espanola, Ontario.

“Having this monument here brings — not necessarily closure — but a place where I can come, because I don’t have that,” Lacrosse said.

Denise Beeswax of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation in southwestern Ontario hopes the MMIWG monument will give families strength.
Denise Beeswax, from the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation in southwestern Ontario, said the MMIWG monument will be a place of healing. (Mathieu Theriault/CBC)

The monument, funded by the Ontario and federal governments, was erected outside the Whitefish River First Nation Community Center off Highway 6 in an area surrounded by many other First Nations and considered sacred by the Anishinabek Nation.

For several days before the unveiling, family members gathered at a pavilion in Whitefish River surrounded by cedars and pines, and swimming turtles.

Directly across the clear lake is a white cliff known as Dreamer’s Rock, a place where young Anishinaabe people come on what are called vision quests to access the sacred.

They can spend four to eight days on the rock at a time, without food or drink, until a vision comes to guide them as they grow.

Daniel Opasinis, 19, stood on the deck of the lodge looking at this rock for guidance.

His mother, Rachel Russell, was murdered in Cobourg, Ontario, at the age of 28 when he was four years old. His case remains unsolved.

The red granite monument unveiled last Wednesday in Whitefish River First Nation is one of two MMIWG monuments unveiled in Ontario this year.
The red granite monument unveiled last Wednesday in Whitefish River First Nation is the first in Ontario for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Olivia Stefanovitch/CBC)

Opasinis said her mother, a Mi’kmaq from Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick, was the most immersed in Indigenous culture in her family.

He called coming to Whitefish River First Nation “surreal,” especially since retirement gave him the opportunity to reconnect with his culture and connect with his mother.

“Being here, I imagine him learning the same teachings that I learned and seeing the same things that I saw,” Opasinis said.

“That was the coolest part of finding something that I think I already knew.”

years of preparation

For almost a week, Opasinis learned about the art of keeping fire, the stories of creation, the meaning behind the ceremony, and how to use plants as medicine from the elders.

Opasinis took a 12-hour bus ride with his aunt, Russell’s sister, from Oshawa, Ontario, to attend the unveiling of the MMIWG monument in person.

“It’s an issue that I don’t think has been given the light it deserves,” Opasinis said.

“The bottom line is that Indigenous women are being murdered at a higher rate than any other group in Canada. It’s sad to know that, and it’s sad to know that it’s because of our culture and who we are.

CBC News has been invited by organizers to spend time with the families ahead of the unveiling and to cover the unveiling itself.

Jessie McDonald is a surviving member of the MMIWG family from Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, 95 km northwest of Kenora, Ontario.
Jessie McDonald is one of the surviving members of the MMIWG family, who has worked on the monument since 2018. (Mathieu Theriault/CBC)

The monument was supposed to be ready a few years ago, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed back those plans.

Supply chain shortages have delayed the acquisition of red granite, which has been requested by families as the color to represent MMIWG.

The monument is the first of two monuments dedicated to the MMIWG that will be unveiled in Ontario this year.

The 2nd monument in Ontario will be unveiled this fall

The first monument in Whitefish River is considered the southern monument, while the second scheduled to be released Oct. 4 in Kenora, Ont., will be the northern monument.

The two monuments will be placed face to face to show the connection between all the MMIWG families.

The project cost $199,792 to create the two monuments, an art-based healing gathering for families and a mentorship program, according to Women and Gender Equality Canada.

“We all carry things, and it eases the load,” said Denise Beeswax, a member of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation who came together to support families.

“It’s very good for everyone. A healing process, something needed to make us strong enough to do what we need to do tomorrow.”

Dreamer's Rock, across from Rainbow Lodge in Whitefish River First Nation in northern Ontario, is where Anishinaabe youth come on what are called vision quests to access the sacred.
Surviving family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls gathered at Rainbow Lodge at Whitefish River First Nation, located about 100 kilometers southwest of Sudbury, Ontario, prior to the unveiling of the monument. (Mathieu Theriault/CBC)

The monument is one of more than 100 MMIWG commemoration projects funded by Ottawa following the MMIWG National Inquiry, which concluded in 2019 that the disproportionate rates of violence faced by Indigenous women and girls amounted to genocide.

The investigation issued 231 calls for justice. Only two are complete.

“The traction must be maintained in the future, and we need a longer and greater commitment from our federal and provincial governments to fund adequate prevention,” said Whitefish River First Nation Chief Rodney. Nahwegahbow.

“The government must be responsible for having contributed to this through the introduction of treaties and colonization.”

The unveiling was a long time coming for Jessie McDonald and the other surviving members of the MMIWG family who have worked on the design of the monument since 2018.

McDonald said she hopes it serves as a sacred place for families to sit with their loved ones and sends a message to the general public.

“I hope it brings them some awareness, and maybe they’ll love each other more and want to help each other more,” said McDonald, who is from Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, 95 kilometers north- west of Kenora.

“I see the hard work of everyone who worked on this project coming together, and finally we’re going to show the product,” she said. “And for me, I will be able to say that the work has been done. We can show our loved ones that we have done it for them.”

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