A red dress hangs on the side of the highway near Campbell River. Groups on Vancouver Island are hanging red dresses at prominent locations to raise awareness about Missing/Murdered Indigenous women on the island. (Photo by Binny Paul/Campbell River Mirror)

A red dress hangs on the side of the highway near Campbell River. Groups on Vancouver Island are hanging red dresses at prominent locations to raise awareness about Missing/Murdered Indigenous women on the island. (Photo by Binny Paul/Campbell River Mirror)

Keeping the hope fire burning: Island First Nation honours missing and murdered women

Mowachaht/Muchalaht honour Nuu-chah-nulth women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered

By Melissa Renwick, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter HA-SHILTH-SA

Paul Johnson was only eight years old when his mother, Pauline, was murdered in Vancouver.

It’s been 38 years since her body was found, but to this day, her murder remains unsolved.

With only a short time together, Johnson holds onto memories of his mother through the stories his grandparents, aunts and uncles have shared with him over the years. That, and through the old photos that he keeps of her stored in his cell phone.

“It hurts every day that I can’t say, `I love you, mom’,” he said. “Part of me is lost.”

Because her case remains open, Johnson said his mother’s spirit is still out there “wandering around.”

He remains hopeful that it will soon be closed so “she can rest in peace,” he said.

On Valentine’s Day, Johnson and his brother, Sam Mayer, gathered with family and friends to honour the Nuu-chah-nulth women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered.

Inside the House of Unity, in Tsaxana, on the traditional Vancouver Island territory of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation near Gold River, community members held space for each other to grieve the loss of their loved ones.

The event was organized by Brian Lucas, Quu’asa wellness worker, and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC) Teechuktl/Mental Health Program team, in response to community requests.

“We want to hold you up,” Lucas said. “And hold up the ladies who have gone before us. It’s always important that we nourish our women — if it weren’t for our women, our men wouldn’t be here.”

Lisa Watts, the tribal council’s MMIWG family support worker, said that 53 murders or suspicious deaths have been reported by Nuu-chah-nulth families, and that two Nuu-chah-nulth women remain missing. There are more than 10,200 registered Nuu-chah-nulth members, according to the NTC.

The Assembly of First Nations, a national advocacy organization representing First Nation citizens in Canada, stated that Indigenous women make up 16 per cent of all female homicide victims and 11 per cent of missing females, despite Indigenous people accounting for only 4.3 per cent of Canada’s population.

Indigenous women are also roughly seven times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be murdered by serial killers, read the 2017 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Speaking to the dozens of community members gathered at the House of Unity, Watts said “we’re making the best of it the way we know how.”

“Every one of these women’s lives mattered,” she said. “It’s so apparent today how much they are loved.”

The occasion marked the first time Pauline’s family gathered together to commemorate her, said Margaret Amos, Pauline’s eldest sister.

Because of the tragedy surrounding her death, Pauline’s father asked his family not to hold a celebration, described Amos.

But now that Johnson, Mayer, and their sister, Chrystal, are adults with children of their own, Amos said it’s “time to honour her and show the respect that we had for her.”

In between drumming, singing and dancing, family members were invited to speak about their loved ones to the intimate crowd that listened unblinkingly.

Yunicum Howard was among the first step up.

Fearful of stirring old memories, he said he was hesitant to attend the event at all.

In 1979, two of his sisters, Helena and Christina, were murdered while hitchhiking along the Island Highway just outside of Gold River. Christine was 26 at the time, while Helena was only 16.

“I’ve never ever let go of what happened to my sisters,” he said, holding back tears. “You think you get over it, but it keeps coming back. And I was scared to come here because I didn’t want that feeling to come back. I want to let it go, but I don’t want to let them go.”

All these years later, Howard said he still feels out of breath when he thinks about what happened to his sisters.

“I go back to how they must have been feeling — what they must have been going through,” he said. “I don’t think you ever get over anything like that.”

Now, Howard’s wife, Beaulah, calls them her highway protectors.

“When I’m on the road, I pray to .125them.375,” she said. “Because they were taken when they were on the road, I really believe they are protecting our people.”

After two years of not being able to gather due to pandemic restrictions, Watts said it felt good just being together again.

“This is what healing is,” she said. “Being together.”

Towards the end of the day, a blanket ceremony was held and each grieving family member was tenderly wrapped in a red blanket.

“You are cared for,” Watts said, as a blanket was gently placed around Johnson’s shoulders. “And you are loved.”

Having grown up without his mother, Johnson said he regularly reminds his seven children to be thankful they have parents.

“I tell my kids that you have to appreciate what you have in front of you,” he said. “I never got that opportunity.”

For Amos, the ceremony wasn’t closure — it was an opportunity to remember Pauline “for who she was, not how she left us,” she said.

“It’s a really, really good feeling being here today,” she added.

Despite it being nearly four decades since Pauline passed, Amos still believes that her murderer will be brought to justice.

“I’m always hopeful,” she said. “You always have to have hope.”

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