The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls heard from 27 families at the public hearings in Smithers, plus 12 more in private.
The stories were of loss and hope, injustice and resilience. They weighed heavy on the heart for anyone who sat through the three days inside the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre. Boxes of tissues with paper bags set out to collect the tears were used throughout the stories of mothers, sisters and daughters lost.
That’s why it was such a relief to hear from the students of ‘Na Aksa Gyilak’yoo School in Kitsumkalum, a First Nations community near Terrace.
It also brought hope for the future that students from Bulkley Valley Christian School and Muheim Memorial Elementary School spent time inside the hearings to learn and listen to what is happening in their communities, province and country.
The ‘Na Aksa Gyilak’yoo students, who ranged from Grades 5 to 12, spoke Wednesday after performing two songs including The Highway.
The Highway has a well-produced video created with the help of N’we Jinan, a program aimed at helping students express themselves creatively.
When the kids, who come from communities around the region including Terrace, Kispiox and Kitsumkalum itself, had the opportunity to speak directly to the commissioners of the inquiry, they didn’t miss the chance to make an impact. Commissioner Michèle Audette asked the students if future inquiry meetings could start with their video, which was answered with an assertive yes by the students.
“You’re representing hope. And I don’t know where you got that strength, but it’s telling me that it’s possible and it’s there and it’s so alive; that you’re keeping our laws alive for today and tomorrow,” Audette told the kids as they sat in front of the cameras and a national audience.
Each student then put their written message in a red willow basket at the front to be shared with the country as part of the inquiry’s report. The ceremonial basket was gifted to the inquiry from a group in Manitoba.
They were then asked what they would say to other kids who are suffering through some of the trauma described during the week’s hearings.
“Everyone has something that will bring them down. I know this sounds corny but, life does get better. Life will get better, and if you hit rock bottom the only way you know you can go from there is up,” said Grade 12 student Melanie McDames. “And I also want you to know that you’re never alone. If you reach out for help, help will come to you.”
She grew up in Kispiox and lives in Terrace, and along with other students has lost family members along Highway 16, sometimes called the Highway of Tears. Melanie also mentioned that her older sisters used to hitchhike from Kispiox to Terrace.
A message of leadership rising up from these youth was also sent.
“My principal Colleen [Austin] and [cultural advisor Larry Derrick], they always tell me don’t let people bring you down because we’re young leaders; we’re the new generation … Don’t let anyone bring you down. You’re going to be a young leader, you’re going to lead. Build yourself up, not down,” said Grade 10 student Linda Spencer from Terrace.
Each of the students received fireweed and wild strawberry seeds, gifts of reciprocity given throughout the hearings across the country chosen for each region. Strawberries represent the strengthening of the heart; fireweed was picked because it is the first to grow in a burned area, representing healing and rebirth.