MISHKEEGOGAMANG — If Sarah Skunk is still alive, she turned 65 in October. Thirty years after her family members last saw her, they don’t know whether she lived to celebrate the occasion — and they wonder if they’ll ever know.
Skunk’s disappearance in the mid-1980s was among many cases the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls heard in Thunder Bay between Dec. 4 and 6. Three of Sarah’s sisters, her niece, and the former chief of her home community, Mishkeegogamang First Nation (Osnaburgh), travelled 550 kilometres south to tell Sarah’s story.
The federal Liberal government convened the inquiry in fall 2016 to investigate why First Nations communities have experienced a disproportionate number of violent deaths and disappearances among their women. Thunder Bay was one of 11 sites chosen across the country for community hearings; while in the city, commissioners Michèle Audette and Brian Eyolfson gathered testimony from about 50 people, including five members of the Skunk family.
The story the Skunks told began with Sarah but in a larger sense it was the story of Mishkeegogamang, where intergenerational trauma and violence due to displacement and colonialism is so widespread that traumatic incidents regularly debilitate the entire community.
No one knows exactly how many cases of missing and murdered women there are in the First Nation often called Mish or Oz — population of around 1,000 people. But at least 10 local families are looking for answers and coping with grief in the community where 300 of the total 2,000 band members living on and off-reserve have died since 1981.
Sarah was one of 11 children born to ninety-three-year-old family matriarch Eva Skunk in the 1950s and early ’60s. Sarah’s sisters, Vicki Loon, Maryanne Panacheese, and Mary Skunk, have watched the effects of abuse, child removal, and addiction passed on through Loon’s daughter, Melissa Skunk, and Melissa’s own daughter, Yolanda.
Split up and removed from their culture as young teenagers 50 years ago, the Skunks have waited for Sarah to come home for three decades. The ripples from those events have become waves today, as Mishkeegogamang’s families struggle to break the cycle. Even as Melissa, 45, has fought to make the community safer for all its women, she has had to pull her own daughter from the depths of addiction.
Broken windows, broken families
In 1964, some of the Skunk children, including Vicki and Maryanne, were outside their home when they saw Sarah loaded into a police cruiser and watched it pull away. For breaking a window, their 12-year-old sister had been taken to a reform school in Guelph, 2,000 kilometres away.
Within weeks, Sarah was transferred to another training school called Port Poster near Lindsay, where her 14-year-old sister Mary had been living for a year — ever since she was caught breaking into a home while drinking underage.
“We were a family at one time. We did what we were supposed to do — our chores and all that. We kept each other,” says Mary Skunk, now 67. “The system broke us, as a family.”
Mary remembers her room in Lindsay being “like jail,” with a bed and a dresser, bars on the window, and a lock on the door. The sisters lived on either end of the building, but spent time together on outings and while swimming at the nearby lake. On a bet, Mary tried to escape through her window but she was caught and sent back to Guelph. Sarah stayed behind, and none of the Skunk sisters saw her again until they were all well into adulthood.
Sarah finally made it home to Mishkeegogamang for Christmas in 1976. Last seen there as a child, she was now 24. Vicki Loon, recalls her sister, Sarah, acting quiet and withdrawn — emotionally estranged from the community where she was raised. Despite the family’s efforts to persuade Sarah to stay, she left after only five days and never returned.
“We couldn’t talk very much about our younger days,” recalls Loon, now 63. “Maybe she didn’t like coming to the reserve again. Maybe she was lost, herself. She wasn’t the same.”
The last time any member of the Skunk family saw Sarah was in Thunder Bay in 1986. The family chased rumours of sightings in Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, and British Columbia over the next decade but the family never caught up with her. Nearly monthly deaths in Mishkeegogamang kept trauma from healing and kept the family occupied with survival. The Skunks officially declared Sarah missing in 1995.
The Skunks had just one clue: Sarah had a child on the west coast. When Sarah was home in 1976, she took a liking to her sister Vicki’s daughter, the then-four-year-old Melissa Skunk.
Vicki Loon gave birth to Melissa at the age of 18. The little girl was raised by her grandmother on the trapline, learning a traditional way of life — sleeping in tents while moving between rice-picking, blueberry-picking, and moose-hunting camps. She would later be taken to residential school in Poplar Hill.
Sarah mentioned having a daughter in British Columbia named Lisa Marie who was a year older than Melissa. Melissa remembers holding her Aunt Sarah’s hand and Sarah saying that she saw something of her daughter, Lisa Marie, in Melissa’s eyes.
“I remember that memory of her because it felt good to me to be walking hand-in-hand,” Melissa says. “It was something — we didn’t grow up like that.”
Every time a body was found in B.C. or the northwestern United States, the family thought it might finally receive an answer about what happened to Sarah, but the body was never hers. Police took mother Eva Skunk’s DNA samples twice but no match was ever found to put the uncertainty to rest. Sarah’s father, Joseph Skunk, died in 1997 without ever having known what happened to Sarah. At 93, Eva is at risk of the same happening to her.
“I’m waiting for her all the time. I want to let go but I just can’t let go,” Sarah’s sister Vicki Loon says. “I’m always waiting for that news that my sister was found — alive or gone.”
Lost and found
In 1994, Melissa was at the Pickle Lake Hotel bar 40 kilometres north of the First Nation, missing her daughter Yolanda’s kindergarten Christmas play when she realized she had to get out of Mishkeegogamang. She had become stuck in an abusive relationship and fallen into the same pattern of drinking as she had seen in the previous generation.
She would live in cities across the country to pursue a career in social work before moving to Sagamok First Nation near Sudbury, a reserve with a high school where she could live with her children. But her love of family and community would bring her back home once they were grown.
In 2013, Melissa’s sister, Monica, died at 39 from complications of untreated diabetes and Melissa returned to Mishkeegogamang to care for her grandmother, Eva. Two years later, she began noticing behaviour changes in her then-25-year-old daughter, Yolanda, who was living in Thunder Bay. After some time of being told it was “nothing,” she drove to the city to find the young woman had developed a crack cocaine addiction. There was no food in the home, the children were neglected, and drug dealers had taken Yolanda’s car to settle a debt.
Melissa called the Thunder Bay Police Service to ask for help getting the vehicle back. She says once she told the police her daughter was Indigenous, they told her there was nothing they could do. Since Yolanda was an adult, she would have to be the one to call police — which she was then in no condition to do.
Taking the situation into her own hands, Melissa confronted the man who came out of the hotel where Yolanda’s vehicle was parked and took the keys back by herself. She ignored her daughter’s pleas to return the car. Melissa stood outside of Yolanda’s house, refusing to allow the dealers to get in.
“This is what the police need to understand: When a mother is asking you for help regarding her daughter — no matter how old she is — when are you guys going to respond? When she’s in a body bag? I know my kid and this is not her,” she says.
“A lot of this could be prevented if they didn’t stereotype Natives,” Melissa says. “‘This is how they live, they’re just drunks, they’re just druggies. That’s just them.’ I look white. They seemed more helpful to me when they saw my complexion until they found out we were Native.”
Melissa took Yolanda home with her the week of Christmas. In a chilling echo of her great-aunt Sarah’s Christmas visit four decades before, Yolanda would only stay a week before returning to Thunder Bay. Yolanda blocked her whole family on Facebook, fell back into drugs, and disappeared. Melissa barely slept at night as she spent her days reaching out to community members in Thunder Bay and Winnipeg. It was the worst time of her life.
Six weeks later, Winnipeg Police Service officers found Yolanda in possession of a crack pipe, sitting in a stolen vehicle. Her arrest scared the young woman straight.
Melissa recalls: “[The police officer] looked at her and said, ‘This isn’t who you are. Do you want us to take you to a crack house and see where you’re going to end up?’
“They scared the shit out of her. They took her to jail and she was crying the whole time. I’d love to meet that police officer and thank him, because I was laying in bed while my daughter was going through this, wondering where she was.”
Now a single mother pursuing her Grade 12 equivalency in Sault Ste. Marie, Yolanda is determined to break the cycle for her own children.
“The biggest thing was, I didn’t want that for my kids. That’s when I knew I had to either continue doing crack or go home and smarten up,” Yolanda says. “Over that time, everyone I thought cared about me, they all judged me or forgot about me, but my mom never did. She knew that wasn’t who I was and she never gave up on me.”
For mother and daughter, abuse at the hands of men has been a common thread. And Yolanda’s experience was like too many cases Melissa had seen in her job at the Mishkeegogamang Safe House women’s shelter. There, she saw the normalization of physical and sexual abuse in the community. Women would arrive battered, they would wait for the situation at home to settle down, and then they would return. All too often, the cycle would repeat.
“I was 19 years old when I finally realized the stuff that happened to me shouldn’t have happened to me. I normalized it,” Melissa says, recalling being sexually assaulted as a child. “That was the turning point in my life. I got help and started to understand what it’s like not to be on the reserve [where a child can get the impression] it’s OK to be sexually touched because even when you tell someone, they just shrug it off. As a kid growing up, no one believes you."
Dealing with the cycle of abuse, she says, is “tiring because sometimes you’re just banging your head against the wall. Where do you even start?”
Choosing to stay
As difficult as life can be in Mishkeegogamang, it’s the life that Skunk sister, Maryanne Panacheese, wants for her grandchildren. She hopes to avoid a repeat of the tragedies that have happened in her own branch of the family.
After her older sisters were sent to reform school, Maryanne and her younger siblings were caught up in the Sixties Scoop. Government officials gave Eva the choice between handing her children over to child welfare services (where she was told she wouldn’t be able to see them until they turned 18) or split them up and send them to residential schools in Brantford and Kenora. Eva opted for the residential schools — Maryanne ended up in Brantford and Vicki was sent to Cecilia Jeffrey residential school in Kenora.
There may not be residential schools in the old sense anymore, but Mishkeegogamang remains among northern First Nations without a high school. When they reach Grade 9, teenagers leave the community to attend the all-First Nations Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay. And having to go away for school caused loss for the Skunk family in the next generation, too.
Maryanne Panacheese’s son, Paul, had difficulty with the transition. Maryanne moved to the city in 2006 to live with him, after he had bounced between 10 boarding homes over three years. One November night, Paul collapsed in their kitchen after returning home from an evening out with friends. He died at the age of 21, and doctors couldn’t explain why.
Paul’s case was included in the 2016 inquest into the deaths of seven youths from remote First Nations who died while attending high school in Thunder Bay. A coroner testified that Paul’s death likely resulted from a hereditary heart condition, but the inquest’s jury found the cause of death inconclusive.
Maryanne is the guardian of some of her grandchildren, and as they reach the age when they’re expected to leave the community to attend high school, she’s faced with making a hard choice for the next generation. She has decided to keep them home.
“I’m not going to send my grandson out,” she says. “I watched my son leave and I brought him home in a coffin. I say, ‘No more.’ ”
The Skunk family is only one of a number of local families that have been trying to break the cycle that began decades ago. As tragedies have compounded generations of trauma in Mishkeegogamang, a few leaders have been trying to hold the community together.
Beyond the number of missing and murdered Mishkeegogamang women, 26 community members have lost their lives to house fires over the past 40 years.
Connie Gray-McKay was named Mishkegogamang’s social service co-ordinator this fall after serving 12 years as its chief. She says the community is caught in a grief cycle that never lets its wounds fully heal.
“It’s like people retreat. All of a sudden, the streets are empty and people aren’t doing stuff they normally do,” she says. “For the leadership, it’s horrific when that happens, because now you’re trying to manage your community who's shut down. Especially in a big trauma where so many people are triggered.”
Mishkeegogamang’s elders shoulder too heavy a responsibility during those crises because 80 per cent of the on-reserve population is under the age of 30 — in fact, 40 per cent of its population is younger than 14. Gray-McKay says their own complex grief is more than they can handle.
“A lot of our elders are residential school survivors who haven’t dealt with their own [trauma],” she says. “My mom’s generation — my mom couldn’t handle being a support in that situation because she hasn’t even dealt with her own stuff. A lot of elders are like that. A lot of them are still drinking.”
Much of the violence Mishkeegogamang’s women face comes at the hands of men and to heal as a community, Gray-McKay believes nurturing needs to focus on men. She sees colonialism as having removed the identity and purpose of Mishkeegogamang’s men through the welfare system, government limitations on land-based activities, and imposing a culture of masculinity that suppresses emotional expression. Lacking outlets for self-fulfilment, internalized trauma can lead to violence.
A community-wide journey began two decades ago to chip away the stigma around discussing abuse.
In 1997, leaders held a meeting with government officials called Rebuilding Mishkeegogamang, a social needs assessment that resulted in a commitment to establish a women’s shelter. That winter, Mishkeegogamang Safe House held its first sexual abuse workshop. Not a single person attended. People were afraid of the secrets that would surface.
“You would have thought we were offering the plague,” Gray-McKay recalls. “No one wanted to talk about sexual abuse. It was scary. Like, ‘Who are we going to be talking about?’ But slowly over the years, people want to talk about trauma and how it’s impacting their lives today.”
A similar session this year attracted 20 people. Forty attended this fall’s parenting workshop, another topic that was considered taboo in the 1990s.
Gray-McKay says rebuilding Mishkeegogamang is a delicate process because the amount of intergenerational trauma and violence the community has experienced has created divisions within and between families.
“When you try to [bring people together], there’s always a sector of community people missing, complicated by the child and sexual abuse that’s there,” Gray-McKay says. “People know about it. They know things about each other. That’s the stuff we have to work on. It’s a gentle process. It has to be slow, at the community’s pace.”
Without services to follow up those sessions, however, Melissa believes that when the pain surfaces, it has nowhere to go. So she has begun to see the workshops as interfering with the healing process. “Why are we stuffing it all into people who are already suffering?” she asks. “To do what? So they can go drink and do drugs, so they can numb all the crap we’re feeding them?
“There’s no aftercare. I can have a three-day workshop on grief and loss and then what? They’re walking around like zombies, because they don’t know what to do with all this shit other than to drink it away and try to suppress it more.”
Melissa Skunk — who became a professional after being raised on her grandmother’s trapline — believes restoring people to their culture will improve their self-esteem.
Promise lies in the Paskokogan Healing lodge, an old school on a nearby lake that was converted to support extended family healing retreats in 2000. Federal funding for those programs was discontinued in 2007, but a decade later, it’s being reinstated.
Those programs will include children as young as 10 years old who are at high risk of suicide, as well as family counselling, art therapy, and traditional, land-based activities such as hunting and trapping.
The First Nation has shifted investment into professional mental health counselling, meanwhile. Just two years ago, one counsellor visited Pickle Lake for only two days per month. Now, two counsellors are based in Mishkeegogamang for 10 days per month each, and a third spends one week of every two in the community.
Melissa Skunk reluctantly took part in the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls process in Thunder Bay. On Tuesday, she and her aunts told Sarah’s story to the inquiry and advocated for the work women are doing to strengthen the fabric of their community.
She knew the inquiry might not move forward the case of her missing aunt Sarah, and she knew it wouldn’t solve the problems Mishkeegogamang faces. She fears the hope offered by the inquiry will prove false — that it will only reopen old wounds and fail to heal them. “This is the trap that’s set,” she says. “How do we even begin to heal from this? It goes way back to our grandmas and how they were affected when their kids got ripped away from them.”
Despite her misgivings, Melissa Skunk decided to speak because she sees no alternative to seek justice for her family or her community.
“Let’s just go with it. When are we ever going to have another chance at this again?”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.
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