‘She was not long with us, but she was here’: Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women tell their stories at exhibit in Toronto cathedral

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“As much as I would like to have justice, I feel that justice will not happen in this world. Justice happens in a higher level, a higher realm. In the spirit world," says Maggie Cywink. Photo: Joelle Kidd

On a table set against the wall of St. James Cathedral in Toronto, an array of framed photographs shows the smiling face of Patricia Carpenter. Neatly lined up next to the pictures are three Cabbage Patch Kids dolls—some of her favourite childhood toys—pages of her poetry and writing, and the purple and green wallet in which she carried photos of her younger brothers and ultrasounds of her baby.

When Patricia’s body was found in 1992, she was 14 years old.

“I didn’t talk about my daughter until 2013,” says Joyce Carpenter, Patricia’s mother. Talking about her daughter “hits my heart and it hurts, but it’s also healing, too…I get upset, but I can talk about it now.”

The Carpenter family is one of the several families of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Transgender and Two-Spirit Persons (MMIWGT2S) that have shared their loved one’s story through a multimedia exhibit called Shades of Our Sisters.

During an opening reception for the exhibit on February 15, Carpenter stood by the display, speaking to visitors about her daughter, the thoughtful and caring young mother.

In the documentary filmed by Shades of Our Sisters, Carpenter says that after Patricia became pregnant, “she changed from a happy-go-lucky teenager to a young adult mother-to-be, all within nine months.” But as an application to work in a fast food restaurant—which she jokingly filled out for her baby boy—showed, she maintained her upbeat attitude and sense of humour. (“Previous address: In mom’s belly,” “Hours of availability: Anytime except for feeding time and bed time.”)

Despite the suspicious circumstances of Patricia’s death, the police did not classify the case a homicide. “When she passed away, she was basically written off in two days,” Carpenter says. In 2016, when the CBC investigated cases of death or disappearance of Indigenous women that authorities did not attribute to foul play, Patricia’s case was included.

In Carpenter’s view, the investigation and media reports at the time were both skewed by racist assumptions. “Because she was Native, [they] had her living on the street, [they] had her doing drugs,” she says. In reality, “she was at home with me, going to school.”

Shades of Our Sisters began as a way to counter these types of false narratives, says Laura Heidenheim, who co-produces the exhibit with the families. “It started with a simple goal, just to provide space for the families to tell their stories in a way that really centred their wants and countered mainstream coverage of their loved ones,” she says.

(Left to right) Maggie Cywink, Joyce Carpenter and Linda John consider the chance to tell their loved ones’ stories through Shades of Our Sisters part of a healing journey. Photo: Josephine Tse

A group of Ryerson University students first conceived of the exhibit as a thesis project; they focused on the stories of two families, the Carpenters and the Cywinks. In the two years since, Shades of Our Sisters has grown into a community project. The exhibit has been displayed 12 times and has travelled across Ontario. Two documentary films created for the exhibit have been screened across Canada. It has also grown to include eight families.

The exhibit at the cathedral includes the documentaries, as well as displays of photographs, stories and treasured items brought in by the families.

A mobile created from hundreds of paper feathers, cascading from a hoop bearing the colours of the medicine wheel, sits at the centre of the cathedral. The feathers were collected from schools and youth organizations as part of an outreach initiative—the 1,200 feathers sent out represent the 1,200 Indigenous women, girls, transgender and two-spirit people who have been classified as murdered or missing in Canada since 1980.

The exhibit also features a red dress on which visitors are invited to pin slips of paper carrying their ideas for a world without violence. After writing on the gold paper, visitors roll the paper and pin it to the dress. Over time, the garment will come to resemble a ceremonial jingle dress.

The opening reception featured remarks from families of the victims honoured in the exhibit and a healing jingle dress dance offered by Shauna Kechego-Nichols, niece of Patricia Carpenter, who was accompanied by singing and drumming led by Sue Croweagle.

There was a moment of silence for 11-year-old Riga Rajkuman, whose body had been found the night before in her father’s basement in Brampton, Ont. The service was closed with interfaith prayers led by Sarah Shah of Toronto Unity Mosque, Sarit Cantor, a community organizer in the Toronto LGBTQ Jewish community, and National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald.

“I think whenever we gather in prayer that it’s more powerful if we’re all together, and I think that our circles become stronger when there are more communities connected to them,” says the Rev. Leigh Kern, coordinator of Indigenous ministries for the diocese of Toronto, who helped organize the event.

The interfaith presence was powerful, Heidenheim says. “There was just this overwhelming sense of community support for these families.”

For Carpenter, the experience was overwhelming. “The amount of people that are here—there are so many people that turned up for this tonight,” she said after the service. “It’s amazing.”

The exhibits usually draw a good turnout, she says. “But to have this in a church…I mean, He’s right there looking after, watching us,” she said, gesturing heavenward.

Carpenter says it’s important to speak about her daughter, and remember her life, “because she did live…she was not long with us, but she was here.”

“It’s important for me to share my daughter’s story so that her spirit lives on,” says Linda John, whose daughter Heleyna Lynn Rivera was murdered by her husband in 2011. John is raising her daughter’s two children and says that as they grow up in Canada and are taught about the movement to remember MMIWGT2S, she wants them “to know, ‘my mom was a part of that movement.’”

Both John and Carpenter say they have lost faith in a justice system that has failed them repeatedly, including the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. For John, who says she had “high hopes” for the inquiry, it was especially painful for her to discover that her daughter’s death could not be addressed by the inquiry because she was killed in the United States.

Photos of Patricia Carpenter are displayed next to her favourite Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. Photo: Joelle Kidd

But with Shades of Our Sisters, John says she feels her daughter’s story can be heard. “There’s love in it. There’s healing.”

While “the media and the world in general gravitates toward misery,” the project, she says, is instead a way to draw families into healing, says Maggie Cywink, who has been involved with Shades of Our Sisters since its inception.

Cywink’s sister, Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink, was murdered in 1994 at age 31. She was pregnant at the time.

Photographs of Sonya and copies of her handwritten poetry and letters were on display at the exhibit. Testaments to her warm, caring nature and creative talent, they included a letter to her father starting with her trademark opening line, “Hi, how are you? I’m fine,” as well as a poem titled “Thoughts in Mind.” In it, Sonya wrote, “The good things are grand if they are always there, waiting to be picked up and put away, but the sorrows are there also; they are the binders of life. Without hardships, life is nothing.”

Cywink and her sister were only a year apart in age. “As much as you love someone equals how much you grieve for someone. There is this parallel…the more you love, the more you grieve,” she says.

When asked about her healing journey, Cywink notes the many people she has lost in her life: other female relatives who were murdered, the loss of her brother when she was only 12 years old. “Every loss that I have had since I was 12 years old just keeps compounding. It keeps building on the loss of the one I never dealt with,” she says. Beginning to deal with grief feels “like a weight is lifted off of us that we don’t even know we’re carrying sometimes—we don’t even know this weight is affecting everything in our lives, affecting who we are and our attitudes,” she says.

Healing is a “life-long process,” she adds. “You never really heal completely from such tragedy and such deep trauma.

“I think that Indigenous people are always coming from a place of deep trauma. So it’s the continuation to live healthy and to enable our children to live a healthy life as well.”

Sonya’s body was found on the historic site of the Neutral Nation, west of London, Ont. The family invited a medicine man there to do ceremonies and sun dance with them, in order to release Sonya’s spirit.

“I envision my sister was met by our ancestors…that’s how I was able to kind of heal,” says Cywink.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Sonya’s death, and the family will hold a memorial event. Cywink says they are working with Ontario Provincial Police and Crime Stoppers on her case.

Though the case is still unsolved, Cywink says she is at peace.

“As much as I would like to have justice, I feel that justice will not happen in this world. Justice happens in a higher level, a higher realm. In the spirit world. So with that attitude, I have come to a place of healing…a place of peace.” She says she is able to forgive whoever murdered her sister. “When you hate someone or you can’t find forgiveness in your life, you can’t move forward.” Her sister wouldn’t want that, she says.

Heidenheim says it was moving to see the reaction of visitors coming to see the exhibit.

Through Shades of Our Sisters, John says she feels her daughter’s story can be heard. “There’s love in it. There’s healing.” Photo: Joelle Kidd

“You know, the families do this work because it’s healing, but then the families also give a lot to people. So when you come, you have this opportunity to really come to understand their grief. Because they really give so much and they really are brave and strong enough to do that and open up to folks, when people leave, I think they really are affected by the stories.” She adds, “It’s a really powerful way to shift people’s mindsets and to shift bias, and to mobilize.”

Canadians have a responsibility to understand the “complicated history” of racialized gendered violence, “and to understand their place in it,” says Heidenheim, adding that it’s also important to question the media narratives about MMIWGT2S and to let families tell their own stories.

Kern says having the exhibit in the cathedral was an honour and a “huge privilege.”

“I think it’s important to use our buildings as centres for right relationships. The cathedral gets tons of tourists every day, people just walking through the space. So being able to use our sacred space to tell stories that are important, and also holy, matters.”

The Shades of Our Sisters exhibit was displayed in the Cathedral February 15 to March 1.

To get a taste of the exhibit materials, visit www.shadesofoursisters.com, where Shades of Our Sisters has created an online experience that tells Sonya and Patricia’s stories through video, maps, text and photos.

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Joelle Kidd
Joelle Kidd joined the Anglican Journal in 2017 as staff writer. She has worked as an editor and writer for the Winnipeg-based Fanfare Magazine Group and as freelance copy editor for Naida Communications.

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