Tanya Brooks family takes ‘power back’ on 10th memorial walk

Click to play video: 'Marking 10 years since Tanya Brooks’ death'
Marking 10 years since Tanya Brooks’ death
Friday marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Tanya Brooks. As Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, her story has touched the hearts and minds of many people in Halifax over the past decade – May 10, 2019

The old St. Patrick’s-Alexandra School in downtown Halifax has haunted the family of Tanya Brooks for a decade. It’s where her body was found 10 years ago in a window well – a murder that to this day has never been solved.

But on Friday her sister Vanessa reclaimed that space, laying small red bags of tobacco where her sister took her last breaths. It was a powerful gesture on the 10th anniversary of Tanya’s death, she said, that will help the family find healing.

“I chose to come back to the school in the 10th year because to me this place is dirty,” she told a crowd, gathered at the school during the annual memorial walk for Tanya. “And I made the choice to take the power back for us.

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Tiny bags of tobacco decorate the window well where Tanya Brooks’ body was discovered on May 11, 2009. Sara Ibsen/Global News

READ MORE: ‘We brought love’: Family of murdered Mi’kmaq woman honours her life

The march began at the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre on Gottingen Street and ended at the school, where friends, family and supporters smudged the former crime scene, prayed, drummed and observed several minutes of silence. The annual walk celebrates Tanya’s life as much as it calls for justice, Vanessa explained.

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“This is a problem that Canada has to start stepping up and paying mind to,” she said, referring to thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) across the country. “It didn’t just happen to my sister. There’s so many women, some that didn’t even have the gift to know what it’s like to be a mother…

“And the change has gotta happen now – not yesterday, not tomorrow, today.”

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Police are still searching for clues in Tanya’s murder, regularly reviewing evidence and following up on tips that trickle in. The case is part of 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.

Sgt. Jason Withrow, a lead investigator, said he wants to see the case closed to bring peace to Tanya’s family.

“We want the family to have closure as best we can by getting those people responsible for the homicide brought before justice,” he told Global News. Someone out there knows what happened, he added, urging anyone who might have any information on Tanya’s whereabouts that night to come forward.

WATCH: ‘Show up’: Tanya Brooks sparks call to action 10 years after her death 

Click to play video: '10 year anniversary of Tanya Brooks’ murder sees family in limbo, case unsolved'
10 year anniversary of Tanya Brooks’ murder sees family in limbo, case unsolved

It’s been a long 10 years, but despite the passage of time, Tanya’s story remains a potent catalyst for change in Nova Scotia.

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According to Mi’kmaw lawyer and Dalhousie University native studies professor Patricia Doyle-Bedwell, it was among the first cases to make clear to legislators that the MMIWG crisis was not confined to western Canada. She said it helped put the province’s feet to the fire in taking the issue seriously.

“We don’t have a Robert Pickton here as far as we know, so in Nova Scotia, it was something I think they actually thought in government that was an issue out west, it wasn’t something we had to deal with here,” she explained.

“But we’ve had women die here and Tanya is the best example of that, and also Annie May Ogwash because nothing was done.”

Withrow said Tanya Brooks has also helped chart a new path forward for relations between police and the Mi’kmaw community. Over the years, the Brooks family has challenged the force to take part in culturally appropriate activities, and encouraged them to stay in touch on a personal level.

“With the Brooks family, being involved in the walk, being involved in smudges with the family, it’s kind of different and unique in ways,” said Withrow.

“It’s not something we do all the time. It’s interesting to get out there and people see us in a different way… and it might give them a chance to approach us while we’re out on these activities with the family.”

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In the meantime, Vanessa says she’ll continue fighting for justice in Tanya’s name. She’s calling on Canadians to do the same by starting a dialogue about Indigenous rights, equality and the sanctity of all human life.

“As long as there is a breath left in me I will continue to fight this fight,” she said. “We are not going to stop looking for justice.”

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