It’s been 10 years since Vanessa Brooks’ sister Tanya was murdered in downtown Halifax, and her killer, never found.
The wounds from that night never healed, Brooks told Global News, but she ripped them open even wider for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in 2017.
Like thousands of Canadians who testified in inquiry hearings, Brooks was forced to relive the trauma of losing her sister — only this time, it was far away from home in Membertou, N.S., and in front of many strangers.
It’s a process she wouldn’t have made it through, she explained, without support from the Family Information Liaison Unit (FILU).
“Marie Sack — that is my FILU worker – I owe a huge, huge thank-you to her because without her support I don’t know where I would have been,” said Brooks.
“It’s good to have that support from somebody that you’re not related to, that is supporting because of your pain, because of the loss, because of the story.”
The federal justice department launched FILU in August 2016 as part of a four-year, $16.17-million commitment to programs and community-based organizations that provide specialized victim services for MMIWG families. Its offices were meant to help guide the families through the inquiry by offering traditional healing, home ceremonies and communication in native languages, and by speaking with police and government on the families’ behalf.
The services were so well-received that in June 2018, the department extended funding for FILU and 20 community-based organizations to March 31, 2020 – about one year after the inquiry is scheduled to release its final report and recommendations.
But with that report coming out on Monday, the clock is ticking on the deadline, causing some anxiety for those who have trusted FILU and built relationships with its outreach workers over the years.
“It’s going to be a terrible loss,” said Marie Sack, a FILU community outreach specialist in Nova Scotia. “What do we do? We just leave them there now and you’re on your own?
“They opened up their hearts to the inquiry and to the Canadian people, and it brought back so much bad and sad memories that their wounds are still open… You can’t put a time period on grief.”
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Sack is preparing for her position to be cut next year, like the two FILU workers in the province that have gone before her. She said her own clients, including Brooks, have already started to express concern that she won’t be around anymore.
Over the years, she has cried with these families, comforted them in Mi’kmaw and English alike, and in Brooks’ case — helped organize memorial walks for Tanya.
“My role is really culturally relevant to the families that we deal with,” she said. “It will leave me wondering, it will leave me worried about the family members. Are they taking care of (themselves)? It’s going to affect me too.”
The justice department declined to provide an interview for this story, but in a written statement, said it will consider funding FILU after the deadline. It couldn’t guarantee the program’s future but said it has started reviewing the funding agreements.
“The Department of Justice Canada will thoroughly and carefully review the National Inquiry’s final report and its recommended actions to address the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls,” wrote spokesperson Ian McLeod.
“… We will look to identify ways to strengthen existing policies and programs and consider new actions and partnerships that will increase the safety of Indigenous women and girls in Canada. This includes identifying ways to increase access to culturally grounded and trauma-informed supports and services for Indigenous victims and survivors of crime, and family members of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls, such as the Family Information Liaison Units model.”
In the meantime, Sack said grassroots groups in Nova Scotia are preparing to fill in the FILU gap if need be.
“We will make sure that things are in place with the Nova Scotia Native Women’s (Association), I’m sure with the governments that we will make sure there is something there for our families after 2020,” she said. “We’re working on that even now as we speak, because that is a concern.”