The Toast will be running a few pieces on Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) this summer; this is the first. Delilah’s sister was killed in February 2014, and there is a scholarship fund in her memory.
My seven siblings and I grew up in a Christian household, which was strict in some sense. We didn’t own a television, and we sat around the table to read The Bible every night and recited scripture. My sisters and I couldn’t wear pants or cut our hair. It might sound a little extreme to some, but it gave us time to spend with family and friends. We interacted and connected with so many people. With Indigenous ancestry, this had its perils but also had its perks. My immediate and extended family are very tight knit. We spent our summers on road trips, frog catching, and basically anything you can imagine for family outings. We always took the neighbourhood kids along with us. My house was always bustling with energy, but that only lasted so long before we discovered drugs and alcohol. Soon, the abuses rolled in. I was molested by a couple of my cousins, and when confronted with that trauma my mother blocked it out. I know this isn’t her fault and I’ve since forgiven her and the two men who assaulted me.
Loretta was much like a mother to me. I moved in with her when I was about 16 years old. Like myself, Loretta moved out at 15. We both received welfare through Choices in St. John’s and both struggled with addiction, sexual abuse and exploitation, physical abuse, and lack of education. I’m glad I had my sister, who was able to pull me out of some scary situations and understand them. As my sister said in her thesis proposal, “My story isn’t unique, thousands of girls are exposed to the exact same experiences that I couldn’t even fathom wishing upon another human being, yet our very own government is responsible for orchestrating the events and developing the policies and practices that led to the marginalization of generations of my people.”
I think when she recognized this pattern, there was no stopping her. She was determined to change things for our people. Even in death, she has been a driving force for Indigenous issues.
I’ve always wanted to be just like my big sisters, Audrey and Loretta. Many little sisters do until they come into their own. I was too chubby to do quick and nimble gymnastic tricks like Loretta, and far too pitchy to sing like either of my sisters, but they still encouraged me in many facets of my life. Through this encouragement, I found my passion to write. Loretta would teach me math, and Audrey would read me everything from brochures in the orthodontist’s office to novels. I had a very strong interest in learning from a young age and used to try to sneak into the elementary school across from our childhood home when I wasn’t yet old enough to attend. I have my sisters to thank for fostering this curiosity. They have taught me how to get this far in this life with passion and drive.
It wasn’t until February 2014 that I found my purpose and it clicked with my passion. I would keep my sister’s prematurely silenced voice alive through writing and advocacy. I had helped her with research, and did some editing for her for cigarettes. This still makes me smile because she tried to deter me from pursuing a career as a writer since she had heard it didn’t pay well. Unknowingly, she commissioned my first writing gig.
My sister had been subletting her apartment for the past month to Blake Leggette and Victoria Henneberry. When she went to collect the rent, Henneberry lied to her and said she had lost her bank card and would call the bank. That’s when Henneberry and Leggette discussed whether or not they should go through with the plan. “Should I do it?” he asked Henneberry while in the room that my sister once studiously spent her time surrounded by research papers. “You don’t have the balls,” she replied. He then proceeded to asphyxiate my pregnant sister, who I’m proud to say put up quite a fight. You could still see the bruising on Leggette’s face when he was arrested nearly two weeks after the incident.
During this time, I was living a very peaceful and fun life in Tofino. It was the first time I had really been on my own, as I had lived with Loretta for the previous 6 years. I made homemade granola, enjoyed the beach in the dead of winter, biked everywhere. I was at a creative high, and met some very amazing people. My sister and I kept in touch over the phone and Facebook. I remember walking on Cox Beach when she texted me the news that she was pregnant. I squealed and wept tears of joy. She also sent me her thesis proposal, along with an e-mail from her professor Dr. Darryl Leroux. I knew of her past experiences and for her to be brave enough to share them with others was huge. She was the type to suffer in silence, something many of our Indigenous brothers and sisters are apt to do. I was underneath a bed in a cabin at the resort where I worked as a housekeeper, and again came the tears of pride and joy. She broke the cycle of silence and has since taught me to do the same.
Sadly, I was only in Tofino for a month and a half before I hurriedly boarded a plane to Halifax to search for my sister. After I got off the plane, a few reporters were waiting, and not my sister. That was the beginning of a series of strange events. Even while traveling across the country, I thought I would find her at the bottom of the stairs as was tradition for us. My best friend, Sabrina picked me up and dropped me off at the Dartmouth bus terminal. I grabbed a copy of the Metro and it started to hit me when I read the missing persons report. I bussed to the Halifax Police Department to speak with the detectives who asked me a series of questions about Loretta’s belongings. This was a serious red flag for me. They asked me as they dropped me off at Sabrina’s to not go to the apartment. I went against their wishes. I had to see for myself that her car wasn’t there. I had to see if she was there.
I moved back to Halifax after the funeral. I had no furniture and thought I could handle using the pieces from the apartment. I slept on Loretta’s mattress for a few months. The same hard mattress she studied and slept on. My mattresses feel too soft now, but Blake and Victoria shared that bed after Loretta rented the apartment to them. I spent many days drinking and stabbing the bed with knives from the kitchen where the struggle ended. I was lost and angry. I had to shed that skin and moved to Calgary with a man with whom I had a toxic relationship, but that didn’t turn out so well either.
The past year and three months following my arrival in Halifax have been an emotionally, mentally, and physically trying time. A huge part of my heart and life story just ended. I entered that toxic relationship. I began drinking even heavier than before and still struggle with it. A part of me died when I got the news she had been murdered. Bits and pieces of me continued to die when dealing with court proceedings, her belongings, terrifying mental images, and the loneliness. Even good news gives me a jolt of pain because the ears I wish to hear the good news, can’t. With reflecting on all of the wonderful lessons and memories my sister and I shared, a supportive group of new friends and colleagues, I’ve been able to pick up the pieces and rebuild myself. A spiritual kintsugi of sorts.
Spiritual kintsugi and all, I still experience the trauma and beauty in various ways. Recently in Halifax, during the jury selection process, I went to Tim Hortons with my brother James and our family friend, Hilary. I saw a blue car similar to Loretta’s and the woman driving looked so much like her from behind. I often feel the surreal sensation of recognizing similarities in women who remind me of Loretta from the back of their heads, the placement of their cheek bones, their ears, even the way they stand and dress. I always tear up, then hate for them to turn around, but they do and I get a glimpse of a stranger’s face. This time was different. As we passed her vehicle, she looked like Loretta when she was in her casket. The same dark red lipstick, something Loretta never would have worn, but the decomposition of her body was so bad that they had to use a dark colour. Her complexion was aged. I got a strange fright and didn’t know how to react. I didn’t leave the house for a while after that, and I remained in bed. I spent a lot of time screaming at Loretta then. Why did she let me leave her? Why am I here? She would have been a brilliant contribution of beauty, love, and change to society and I can’t even leave my bed.
I’ve attended a few screenings at the House of Commons recently, and have been traveling with Highway of Tears. Highway of Tears is on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women on Highway 16 in BC. The Q&A portion of the screening has been extremely effective in opening a dialogue within communities and educating the public. The other is Survivors Rowe, which is about the stories of a few of the 500 boys who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a cop/priest/boy scout leader. It’s no mistake there is a recognizable correlation between all of the issues we face as Indigenous people and the umbrella of colonialism.
I think pushing for an inquiry would unearth a lot of discrepancies in the system, raise awareness about what impacts we’re all facing, and push us in the right direction. On the other hand, an inquiry isn’t the magic elixir, because there is no potion for something such as this and no guarantee the government will follow through with solutions. I’ve been struggling in search of a quick resolution. An inquiry won’t solve everything, because we need to do something we don’t like to do. We need to learn how to be effective, and that starts with being cognizant and vigilant in regards to what we are contributing to the problem and solution. It’s very difficult for us to look inward, we oftentimes don’t like what we see. For positive change, that’s such an important step for ourselves, our families, and ultimately our communities. Pushing for an inquiry would mean not only answering the question why Indigenous women are more likely to go missing or die a violent death, it would help unearth the skeletal remains of colonialism and how it has designed a specific role for all. It would mean rewriting history and changing a system that is designed to benefit only itself.
I learned so much from my sister’s short time on Earth. She lived her life without fear, with such passion and ferocity. She had an appetite for sensation, life, love, and knowledge. She taught me many lessons and continues to guide and inspire me.
I hope in sharing her experiences and my own, I’m able to do the same for someone else.
The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women has encompassed Delilah Saunders’ life since the murder of her pregnant sister, Loretta Saunders, in February 2014. Loretta was studying the issue for her honours thesis at the time of her death. To take a proactive approach to her own healing, Delilah has taken on the titles of freelance writer, producer, and advocate to carry her sister’s legacy forward.