The mother of a 16-year-old Aboriginal girl murdered in northern New Brunswick made an emotional plea Tuesday to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls – Canada needs tougher laws.
“If you murder someone, you shouldn’t be allowed out,” Pam Fillier said at the start of two days of hearings in Moncton, N.B.
Fillier’s daughter, Hilary Bonnell, disappeared from Esgenoopetitj First Nation on Sept. 5, 2009, triggering an extensive search that gripped the Aboriginal community.
The girl’s 32-year-old cousin, Curtis Bonnell, was arrested on Nov. 8, 2009, and led police to her burial site the next day. He told police he sexually assaulted Hilary and killed her. He was later convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.
Fillier said the pain doesn’t go away.
“It doesn’t end when you bury your child. It just starts another kind of pain,” she said.
Fillier said she wants tougher laws to punish people who commit such crimes.
“If we don’t get tougher laws, these monsters keep getting let out. That’s another child in danger,” she said.
Later in the afternoon, Fillier and her husband Fred appeared before the inquiry to speak about Hilary’s death in detail.
When Hilary went missing, she said, she always felt she would be found. Then she received the devastating news.
“She was a wonderful little girl,” Fillier said as a slideshow of pictures of Hilary played in the background.
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The police were reluctant to search for Hilary, only starting after Fillier took her story to the media, she said. However she stressed police eventually were very helpful and shared in the grief.
She called for tougher laws that would deny parole for convicted murderers.
“My little girl can’t come home. He should never be allowed to go home,” she said crying.
A video prepared by friends of Hilary and posted to social media during the search was shown to those attending the Moncton hearings, and Fillier said it was important to her that people could view it.
“I need people to see what a wonderful little girl she was,” Fillier said.
The family left the room while the video was shown, and a number of people in the audience could be seen crying.
Commissioner Michele Audette said the emotional stories from families across the country are a “gift” to the work of the inquiry.
“They’re telling us all their experience. They know what was felt by them or didn’t work for them, and they know what needs to be changed,” she said.
Much of the day was spent hearing from a Knowledge Keepers panel – three elders who detailed the history of Indigenous people in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island and issues that have arisen, particularly the loss of status by Indigenous women who married non-Aboriginal men.
“The loss of status is loss of community,” said Judy Clark, adding that Indigenous men marrying non-Aboriginal women kept their status.
Imelda Perley, a member of the Red Shawl Campaign, said that treatment has put up walls that need to be removed.
The inquiry is expected to hear from at least 35 people, including a youth panel Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s very important that we hear from the youth – not just the impact, but what are they recommending for a better Canada?” said Audette.
Most of the presenters will provide their stories in private.
The federal government set up the inquiry in December 2015 to address the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
The commissioners began the inquiry in September 2016 and were hoping to issue a final report by the end of 2018, but the commission is widely expected to ask for a deadline extension.
More than 700 people have shared their stories with the inquiry so far.