The Brooks family house in Millbrook First Nation, N.S. has a porch overlooking the community’s cemetery.
On a quiet day, Vanessa Brooks sits there and speaks to her sister Tanya, whose remains are buried just past a hammock strung between trees at the edge of the yard.
Sometimes, she and her two daughters curl up on it together and imagine Tanya basking in the sun, next to their mother and grandmother.
“She feels a little bit further,” says Vanessa, in the days leading up to the 10-year anniversary of her sister’s death.
“I find myself sometimes going back on Google and doing a Google search on her to be able to hear her voice.”
Tanya Brooks was murdered on May 10, 2009, and her body was discovered in the window well of St. Patrick’s-Alexandra School in Halifax the following day. The case remains unsolved, leaving the Brooks family with open wounds, living in limbo, awaiting justice.
She was just 36-years-old at the time of her death; a beloved mother of five children with a large extended family.
“She had so much potential for growth,” says Vanessa, sitting on a couch just feet away from the bedroom she and Tanya once shared. “And the love she had for her children and her family was just – it was outstanding.”
Vanessa remembers her older sister as a compassionate woman with an infectious laugh – someone who emanated strength during times of hardship, facing life’s most unforgiving circumstances. But Tanya’s legacy lives on, she says with a smile, as a call for justice and equality.
“We can’t allow this to continue and keep continuing year after year,” Vanessa explains.
She’s referring to thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in Canada — a harrowing collection of names and numbers her sister now belongs to. But Tanya is more than a statistic, Vanessa insists: Tanya is a mother, a grandmother, a sister and a friend whose life has helped propel the MMIWG crisis to centre stage, with help, of course, from Vanessa.
Since Tanya’s death, she and her sister have been featured in countless media articles, an episode of APTN’s Taken, in Classified’s Powerless music video, and in the Sacred MMIWG awareness campaign. Strangers have reached out to her from the farthest corners of Canada to tell her how their story has given them strength.
It’s a life in the spotlight Vanessa wouldn’t have chosen, but silence was never an option, she tells Global News.
For a mother and Indigenous woman in Canada, there’s simply too much at stake.
“Being politically correct around this subject isn’t going to have the conversation going where it needs to go,” she explains.
“I think the hard part about all of it is the silence (of other people). I can advocate and I can walk and I can scream from all the mountains in the world. Unless I can have someone to stand beside me and scream with me, no one’s going to hear.”
Maybe that’s what Tanya did the night of her death, she adds, and nobody heard her. Or maybe they did, and they ignored it.
Asked to reflect on what’s changed in the 10 years since her sister’s death, Vanessa takes a lengthy pause. There are more conversations taking place around the MMIWG crisis, she says, but the discourse — and action that follows discourse — just aren’t at the level they need to be.
In the next 10 years, she says she’d like to see more organizations supporting Indigenous Peoples. She says she’d like the numbers of MMIWG cases to drop, and she’d like Indigenous lives to matter just as much as everyone else’s, not just on paper, but in hearts and minds.
“I would like to see it on that front where the solidarity literally means we’re solid. We’re united. As one.”
For the general public, she says that means having the hard conversations, taking action in the face of injustice, and supporting those in need around you. It’s actually quite simple, she explains: “People say what can I do to help? I say, ‘You have a breath in you. That’s more than what she has. So show up, walk, think, be.'”
She’s also seeking justice and calling anyone with information on Tanya’s death to come forward.
The case falls under the Nova Scotia Justice Department’s Rewards for Major Unsolved Crimes Program, which can offer up to $150,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction.