For 22 years, Sandra McNeil never had a place to grieve for her mom.
Dawn Carisse, who is Abenaki, disappeared in 2001 after fleeing the North Bay Psychiatric Hospital, where she was admitted after a brain injury caused short-term memory loss.
To this day, Carisse’s case remains unresolved.
“I don’t have a gravesite or anything I can actually go to … visit or talk to her,” McNeil said.
Having this monument here, it’s bringing — not necessarily closure — but a place for me to come to, because I don’t have that.– Laura Lacrosse, daughter of murdered Indigenous woman
On the longest day of the year, McNeil joined dozens of other families under a clear, sunny sky in ceremony to connect with their moms, sisters, daughters, cousins and aunties, and ensure they’re 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 about 1,500 people located approximately 102 kilometres southwest of Sudbury, Ont.
WATCH | The story behind the new monument for MMIWG
It’s a monument designed by families for families by Indigenous artists from Signature Memorials based in Orillia, Ont.
“It’s somewhere I can attend to and visit and honour my mom,” 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 heavy wave of emotion that fell over the crowd.
For several minutes, no one spoke, as some family members wept and every one took in the monument’s symbolism.
Its round shape represents the continuation of life, while its base looks like a drum to mark the beating heart.
A gap — a separation in the rock — runs down the monument’s centre, signifying the missing.
“That circle could never be complete because those loved ones are still missing and we want desperately to bring them home,” said Meggie Cywink, a longtime MMIWG advocate from Whitefish River who organized both the event and a healing retreat for family members ahead of the unveiling.
Cywink also helped families with the monument’s design, a task she called a labour of love.
Her sister Sonya Nadine Cywink was killed at the age of 31 in Elgin County, southwest of London, Ont. There is a $60,000 reward available for information leading to the arrest of the killer.
“Families are stronger than you realize,” Cywink said. “This project is about intergenerational healing.”
A place for families to reconnect with loved ones, culture
There are no words on the monument.
Instead, an image of a jingle dress dancer, which is a symbol of healing, is engraved on the right with flowers woven throughout the middle, along with strawberries, known as the “heart berry” because of its shape and medicinal benefits.
“Don’t wipe your tears away, you need that healing,” Laura Lacrosse told the families.
Lacrosse paid tribute to her mom Deborah Anne Sloss, whose 1997 murder in Toronto is still unsolved.
She said the monument’s location is personally fitting since her mom was born up the road in Espanola, Ont.
“Having this monument here, it’s bringing — not necessarily closure — but a place for me to come to, because I don’t have that,” Lacrosse said.
The monument, funded by the Ontario and federal governments, was erected outside the Whitefish River First Nation community centre off of Highway 6 in an area surrounded by many other First Nations and considered sacred by the Anishinabek Nation.
For several days leading up to the unveiling, family members gathered at a lodge in Whitefish River surrounded by cedar and pine trees, and turtles swimming.
Directly across the clear lake, there’s a white cliff known as Dreamer’s Rock, a place where young Anishinaabe people come for what’s known as 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 come of age.
Daniel Opasinis, 19, stood on the lodge’s deck looking out at that rock for guidance of his own.
His mom, Rachel Russell, was murdered in Cobourg, Ont., at the age of 28 when he was four. Her case remains unsolved.
Opasinis said his mom, Mi’kmaq from Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick, was the most immersed in Indigenous culture within his family.
He called coming to Whitefish River First Nation “surreal,” especially since the retreat gave him an opportunity to reconnect with his culture and become closer to his mom.
“Being around here, I, like, imagine her learning the same teachings that I learned and seeing the same things that I saw,” Opasinis said.
“That’s been the coolest part is finding something that I think I already knew.”
Years in the making
For almost a week, Opasinis learned the art of fire keeping, creation stories, the meaning behind ceremony and how to use plants as medicine from elders.
Opasinis took a 12-hour bus ride with his aunt, Russell’s sister, from Oshawa, Ont., to witness the unveiling of the MMIWG monument in person.
“It’s an issue that I don’t think has gotten the light that it deserves,” Opasinis said.
“The bottom line is that Indigenous women are getting murdered at a greater 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 was invited by organizers to spend time with families before the unveiling, and to cover the unveiling itself.
The monument was supposed to be ready a few years ago, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed back those plans.
Supply-chain shortages caused delays acquiring red granite, which was requested by families as the colour to represent MMIWG.
The monument is the first of two monuments dedicated to MMIWG that are being unveiled in Ontario this year.
2nd monument in Ontario to be unveiled this fall
The first monument in Whitefish River is considered the southern monument, while the second one that’s expected to be made public on Oct. 4 in Kenora, Ont., will be the northern monument.
Both monuments will be placed to face each other to show the connection all MMIWG families have.
The project cost $199,792 to create both monuments, an art-based healing gathering for families, and a mentoring program, according to Women and Gender Equality Canada.
“We’re all carrying things, and this kind of lightens the burden,” said Denise Beeswax, a member from the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation who gathered to support families.
“This is very good for everybody. A healing process, something necessary to make us strong enough to do what we have to do tomorrow.”
The monument is one of over 100 MMIWG commemoration projects funded by Ottawa following the National Inquiry into MMIWG, which concluded in 2019 that the disproportionate rates of violence faced by Indigenous women and girls amounts to genocide.
The inquiry issued 231 calls for justice. Only two are complete.
“The traction has to be maintained moving forward, and we need to have a longer and larger commitment from our federal and provincial governments to fund adequate prevention,” said Whitefish River First Nation Chief Rodney Nahwegahbow.
“Government has to be accountable for having their part in it through the introduction of treaties and colonization.”
The unveiling was a longtime coming for Jessie McDonald and the other surviving family members of MMIWG who’ve worked on the monument’s design 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 wider public.
“I hope that it brings them awareness, and maybe to love each other more and want to help each other more,” said McDonald, who is from Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, 95 kilometres northwest of Kenora.
“I see the hard work of all the people who worked on this coming together, and finally we are going to show the product,” she said. “And for me, I’ll be able to say the work has been done. We can show our loved ones that we did it for them.”