One woman’s 25-year fight to find the person who killed her sister

For 25 years, Meggie Cywink has done everything in her power to find the person who killed her sister, Sonya Nadine Mae. In the process, she’s become a warrior for her community.

But how hard can you keep pushing when the case remains unsolved? And when Indigenous women and girls are still going missing and still being killed, when do you wonder if your efforts might be better spent helping someone else’s family?

 

Sonya Cywink cooked her family a saucy, belly-filling spaghetti dinner.

The pasta was food for her father and her 10 brothers and sisters, but the making of it was for her — a deliberate, joy-filled act of self-soothing. That’s how Meggie, her sister, remembers it. She doesn’t know what Sonya was thinking the last time she fed her family her signature dish. She doesn’t know whether Sonya took pleasure in stirring to keep the pasta from sticking to the pot or from watching her sisters and brothers load their plates.

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The entire Cywink clan had descended on a lodge north of the family home on Birch Island, Ont., for a reunion in early July 1994. They laughed and teased and lounged in the living room. Sonya — the second youngest, just shy of her 31st birthday — was more withdrawn. Meggie had helped her sister into detox and through recovery — then watched her relapse. She was relieved Sonya had come at all. Cleaning up later, she discovered syringes in Sonya’s room.

“I was devastated,” she says. “I didn’t know what to think, I didn’t know what to do.”

When Meggie got home to Toronto she called Sonya, who was living nearby in London. She didn’t pick up. Meggie called again. No answer. Meggie tamped down her panic. She reminded herself: Sonya has gone missing before, she always turns up. 

When Sonya finally answered the phone it was August. The sisters made a plan to go to a Blue Jays game for Sonya’s birthday. But Sonya never showed. This time, Meggie couldn’t swallow her worry.

On Aug. 30, Sonya’s body was discovered a 40-minute drive southwest from London at a small, serene national historic site whose lightly undulating landscape is the only remaining indication that an Indigenous village hummed with life back in the 1500s. The land now is blanketed by trees and dotted with corn husks, stolen and discarded by animals from the surrounding fields.

Sonya had been murdered.

WATCH: How the 25th anniversary of Sonya Cywink’s murder puts a spotlight on MMIW inquiry

***

Aug. 26, 1994 — Sonya is last seen at the corner of Dundas and Lyle streets in London.

Aug. 30, 1994 — Sonya’s body is found at Southwold Earthworks.

That’s it; those are the dates — at least the ones police will share publicly. This year marks a quarter-century since her death and the police don’t know who killed Sonya. The OPP have erected two billboards in London to mark the anniversary. There is a photo of Sonya staring with pursed lips at passing traffic, feathery brown hair to her shoulders, glasses on. FIND MY KILLER, the billboards urge.

Meggie wants to, but is it possible?

Although the case is unsolved, Meggie stays in touch with the OPP. For the last year, she’s been back and forth with OPP Const. Adam Crewdson, who’s helped plan the anniversary publicity campaign. They talk to make sure the posters are ready (they are) and to make sure the planning for the Aug. 30 ceremony is on track (it is).

LISTEN: Who killed Sonya Cywink?

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Crewdson was nervous to meet Meggie. He never knows what to expect when he meets surviving family. Some people don’t want to talk to the cops at all, he says, they’re just “closed off and they’ve moved on with that chapter of their life.”

Some people, particularly Indigenous people, do not trust police. It’s a persistent issue the national inquiry into the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women addressed in its final report earlier this summer. The inquiry’s hearings featured a series of apologies from police representatives. RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, in particular, apologized for the ways in which Mountie policing failures have furthered violence against Indigenous women and girls.

READ MORE: The B.C. killings got instant attention, yet crimes against Indigenous women get less. Why?

Meggie calls often. At first, Meggie called for her father. Wilfred Laurier Cywink Sr. was a widower — Sonya’s mother Estelle McGregor died eight years before her daughter was killed. Wilfred was devastated by Sonya’s death. At the funeral in a small church on Whitefish River First Nation, Wilfred learned that Sonya had been pregnant when she was murdered. He had lost a child and a grandchild.

“I just saw all of the life come out of my father,” Meggie says. “He was just not the same after that.”

When her father would call her, Meggie says he always asked about Sonya. She hoped to one day give him an answer. She called the OPP and kept calling. Wilfred died in July 2000, “without ever knowing anything,” she says.

“That’s really difficult… for him not to see justice.”

Sonya Cywink, right, with her father and her younger sister Stacey when they were children.

Photo courtesy of the Cywink family

The relationship with the police hasn’t been easy, Meggie says. She got angry every time she built a relationship with the lead detective only for that person to be transferred out and a new detective brought in. It took her a while to understand how fresh eyes might help, even if the time it took a new person to get up to speed felt like a frustrating waste.

“I didn’t know that until I got angry with them and I got pissed off and I said, ‘You know, I’m sick and tired of trying to deal with somebody new all the time,’” Meggie says.

But she persisted after her father died because who else was going to advocate for Sonya if not the people who loved her so deeply and who miss her every minute? Meggie has done a flurry of interviews in preparation for the 25th anniversary of Sonya’s murder. It’s hard.

Over and over she relives the worst moments. Then she tries to relive the best moments so Sonya isn’t known just as an unsolved homicide. But even those moments are a hard reminder that what was good and wonderful about growing up with Sonya, about eating her saucy spaghetti, will never happen again.

On Aug. 19, Sonya would have been 56. Meggie is 57. She doesn’t feel the way she did when she was 32 — an ominous feeling sitting like lead in her gut when her brother called to say the body reported on the news was Sonya’s.

If the early years were marked by rudderless grief and rage, then these ones have a guiding purpose — they’re more peaceful. At no point will Meggie stop hoping. And yet, the idea that Sonya’s killer might never be caught is a thought that Meggie doesn’t find as unbearable as she used to.

“There’s always hope, but will I push as hard as I have for the last 25 years? Probably not.”

“I think families have to be always ready to catch their loved ones in whatever way they can,” says Meggie Cywink, pictured here outside her family home in Whitefish River First Nation on Aug. 20, 2019.

Jane Gerster/Global News

Indigenous women and girls are still going missing and they are still being killed. Meggie wants her attention — your attention — to go to them. Working for other families is good, she says; it makes her happy.

“We’ve given (Sonya) so much care and love in the past 25 years that it might be time just to let her rest. And if there’s someone out there that knows the answer of what happened to her, I hope they have compassion and empathy to come forward and tell us,” Meggie says. “I’m OK, I will forgive them.”

READ MORE: Who killed Helga Beer? Time is running out to find her murderer

Sonya’s case isn’t cold, Crewdson says.

And thanks to Meggie, Sonya isn’t just a historical homicide — a term meant to more clearly convey that there is always a detective assigned to Sonya’s case and they do not consider it closed. That matters to Meggie: “It’s an open case, it’s an active case, and I think those are very important words for me.”

Through Meggie, Crewdson knows Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink is the second youngest in a big, big family. Through Meggie, he knows Sonya grew up in a cozy, two-storey brick house overlooking McGregor Bay in Whitefish River First Nation next to Manitoulin Island. She shared a room with all the girls, while the boys shared the bedroom next door. She swam in the bay in the summer and she skated on it in the winter. He knows she got pregnant when she was 16, gave her boy up for adoption, and then moved south to Toronto for a fresh start. He knows she had a family who loved her, who cheered her on, and who hoped and hoped and hoped she would be OK.

***

To know Meggie is to know that she is not a supporter of the MMIW inquiry. Even before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to launch it, Meggie had her doubts. There have already been inquiries that have produced massive tomes, she thought. Canada wants a road map? The reports and recommendations already exist.

She calls genocide “the $93-million word.”

That isn’t to say there has been no genocide or even that Meggie is in disagreement with the MMIW inquiry’s findings, which were released to many headlines concerned with its use of the word and seemingly far fewer about the substance of the report.

Rather, Meggie feels the inquiry had to make such a proclamation to justify the cost. After all, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — which released a six-volume report in 2015 after six years of intensive study — had already used the term “cultural genocide” to describe the Canadian residential school system.

“Who benefited from the $93 million? How many people? How many families?” Meggie says. “What does it really solve, like, what does it really solve? Nothing. It didn’t solve a bloody thing.”

WATCH: Meggie Cywink explains why the MMIWG inquiry was a ‘failure’

The inquiry, which was beset by delays and controversy, called violence against Indigenous women and girls a crisis “centuries in the making” that would require a societal shift to dismantle colonialism to fix.

“This paradigm shift must come from all levels of government and public institutions,” said chief commissioner Marion Buller in June. “Ideologies and instruments of colonialism, racism and misogyny both past and present must be rejected.”

Buller had words, too, in the report for those who might moan about money:

“Skeptics will be fearful and will complain that the financial cost of rebuilding is too great, that enough has been done, that enough money has been spent. To them I say, we as a nation cannot afford not to rebuild. Otherwise, we all knowingly enable the continuation of genocide in our own country.”

And yet, Meggie is worried about the money: when will all these expensive reports burn through Canadians’ willingness to pay? She worries that money will never get where it needs to go.

Part of the problem is that we take these road maps, we take these massive, expensive, detailed reports, and we don’t follow through, says Art Jacko, band manager in Whitefish River First Nation. He knew Sonya for a while when they were teenagers and he’s doing his best in his job now to help support Meggie, who he calls “a warrior.”

WATCH: ‘The inquiry was never going to solve my sister’s case,’ says MMIW advocate

“Far too many times we have reports done… They sit there and nothing is done,” he says. “Then we ask ourselves, 10 years down the road, why is this happening? The reason why it’s happening is that you didn’t do what you were supposed to have done.”

The fix is families, Meggie says, and it always has been. Politicians need to quit making promises they can’t keep and they need to take the money out of reports and into communities.

“Put the money where it’s supposed to be,” she says. “Families already know what they need to do: stop playing with our lives and not giving us the resources we need, the healing resources we need.”

Sonya Cywink grew up in this home on Birch Island, Ont., in the 1960s and 1970s. The house was built on Whitefish River First Nation land leased to the Canadian Pacific Railway, which employed Sonya’s father. Nobody has lived in the home since the Cywink family.

Jane Gerster/Global News

The family home where Meggie and Sonya grew up has been empty for decades.

You have to push through waist-high branches, wildflowers and weeds to get to it. The back wall has disintegrated and the living room ceiling has fallen in, curving like a slide to expose an upstairs bedroom door but no bedroom.

That was the boys’ room, Meggie says, although for a brief time it was the girls’ room and they took advantage: when they didn’t think their mother would catch them, the Cywink girls would secure each others’ legs so they could lean out the window and pluck apples off the tree.

Meggie’s whole face softens when she talks about growing up here. She was only one year older than Sonya but that was enough to put her firmly in the older kid category. Sonya and Stacey were “the babies.”

Sonya, left, and her younger sister Stacey, were the babies of the family. Their mother Estelle often dressed the pair in matching outfits.

Photo courtesy of the Cywink family

The family couldn’t technically live on the reserve because Estelle McGregor, who was Ojibway, lost her Indian status when she married Wilfred Cywink, who had no status because his Ojibway and Odawa mother had lost her status when she married his father — Sonya’s grandfather — who was Polish.

Earlier this month, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett announced changes to the Indian Act that would allow First Nations women like Sonya, Meggie, their sisters and their mother to regain status. But at the time, the Cywinks skirted that rule because Wilfred worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway, which rented the plot of land on which the McGregor Bay home sat from the First Nation.

Winters were for skating on the bay, sledding down the hill next to the house, and — for Sonya, in particular — ice fishing. Summers were for swimming in the bay, diving where it was deep enough, picking strawberries from the patch down the road, and hopscotch and ball games on the front lawn that their father created for them by beating back the encroaching forest with a scythe.

Every season was for poker and cribbage. In a big loud, competitive family, Sonya stood out. She didn’t like to get her siblings in trouble and she wasn’t as intensely competitive, Meggie says. She would let other people win.

She was funny and active — always laughing, always outside — but she wasn’t loud or boisterous like her older siblings. She was like her father, Meggie says — mellow and deeply loving.

WATCH: ‘She was a leader’ — How Sonya Cywink’s cousin remembers her

Nobody could say a bad word about Sonya growing up, says her younger cousin Louise Jacko. Jacko still lives in Whitefish River First Nation, on Birch Island. She’s six years younger than Sonya and her birthday is Aug. 26 — the same day Sonya was last seen alive.

Sonya was unique in that she spent her time mentoring kids younger than her, Jacko says. Sonya ran a small choir at the local church. She taught the neighbourhood girls how to sing and at Christmas she led them carolling around the reserve. Once, she even brought them back to the house on McGregor Bay for presents and cookies.

Sonya gave direction but was always kind. Jacko never felt intimidated or self-conscious with her — “she was a leader.”

But like everyone, Sonya struggled. Meggie says Sonya was violated when she was barely a teenager. When she was 16 she got pregnant and dropped out of high school; a distant relative adopted her baby boy.

“That was really, really difficult for her,” Meggie says.

After she gave up her son, Sonya followed Meggie to Toronto. The city was big and loud and you could take a bus almost anywhere. The move from a quaint family life on the First Nation to the bustle of the big city was hard for Sonya, who was already vulnerable from recent traumas. Meggie says her sister was like “a kid in a candy store.”

“I don’t think she was ever really exposed to anything like that before.”

Sonya Cywink, pictured in 1989, when she was 26 years old.

Photo courtesy of the Cywink family

In Toronto, Meggie loved having her sister close. Sonya depended on her for advice and sometimes financially, while Meggie depended on her sister for friendship and emotional support. One morning when Sonya was 18, she invited Meggie over for a visit. Sonya was living with a boyfriend and she was completely in love, Meggie says. Meggie wasn’t sure what to expect when she arrived.

She went into the kitchen and found people freebasing, a way of ingesting cocaine that’s much more intense but the high is significantly shorter. Meggie didn’t know what it was but she turned to her sister and asked to try.

Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink is pictured in 1977.

Photo courtesy of the Cywink family

Sonya was vehement in her denial, Meggie remembers. “She was so protective,” she says. “She said, ‘Don’t ever try this, don’t you ever try this.’”

Meggie wonders if Sonya was already addicted but aware enough to want to spare her sister the same struggle.

For more than a decade, the sisters were locked in a pattern. Sonya vacillated between clean and sober. When Sonya was high she would disappear for a few days, maybe a week. Meggie never reported the disappearances because Sonya always seemed to come back. Invariably she would show up at her sister’s door, sleep and eat, seem OK for a bit, then disappear again.

“You can’t force somebody into treatment,” Meggie says.

Southwold Earthworks is a small, serene national historic site blanketed by trees and dotted with corn husks, stolen and discarded by animals from the surrounding fields. It’s just off Iona Road, a 40-minute drive southwest of London, Ont. Sonya Cywink’s body was discovered there on Aug. 30, 1994. Her murder is unsolved.

Jane Gerster/Global News

The last time, Sonya was gone for two weeks. By the time she knocked at Meggie’s door, she looked sick and hungry. “She didn’t look very well.” Meggie let her sleep and recuperate for a week and then she sat her down: “You’ve got to do something or you’re going to die.”

Sonya seemed to accept that. Meggie searched for a treatment facility and the sisters settled on one in London. Anywhere closer to Toronto was too close and made it too easy for Sonya to fall in with her old, drug-reliant crowd.

Clean Sonya was Sonya on Birch Island. She was mellow and loving, she cracked jokes, she went outside, she made plans for the future. Meggie was so hopeful — “she was looking like the girl I knew.”

Sobriety is hard, and relapse is common. Meggie doesn’t know when it happened — Sonya was sober for nine, maybe 10 months before she relapsed? Sometime in the spring of 1994, when Meggie hadn’t heard from her sister in months, Meggie went to London and drove through the city looking for her sister. She spotted her outside a bar.

“It was her, and something had changed again,” Meggie says. “It was not the Sonya I knew. She was anxious. She wasn’t straight.”

Meggie asked her sister to come with her and she asked how she could help. Sonya said she was fine and waved her off. Meggie realized later her sister wasn’t just using again, but had turned to sex work to fund her habit. It’s unclear what role, if any, it had in her death.

Sonya Cywink crouches in the bottom right. This photo, taken during the Cywink family reunion in July 1994, is the last time her family saw her.

Photo courtesy of the Cywink family

Randy Gaynor is the OPP detective inspector currently handling the case. He can confirm there have been persons of interest in the case, but not whether there is a current suspect. Nobody has ever been arrested or charged. He won’t say if Sonya had ever been to Southwold Earthworks before, how she might have gotten there, whether she was killed there or brought there after she’d been killed, or even who it was that discovered her body. It’s all being kept confidential, but Gaynor says the case is very much open and the hope is the public campaign, including the FIND MY KILLER billboards, will generate new leads.

If it does, Meggie will leave that for the police to investigate. For her, the work is about helping families be healthier and stronger. Mental health and addiction stigma persists. People want distance between their lives and mental, emotional and spiritual health problems, Meggie says, and yet, “all of that is what love and care is supposed to be in families… Have we forgotten about that?”

WATCH: ‘Whirlwind Woman’ — How Sonya Cywink was celebrated after her murder

Meggie’s work to bring her whole community on a healing journey is one part of Whitefish River First Nation’s attempts to bolster community wellness, says Art Jacko, the band manager. He remembers as a kid getting in trouble and his aunts and uncles or neighbours would scold him and his parents would be grateful.

“I didn’t like it,” Jacko says, but he felt better for it. Now, everyone is their own island, drowning in colonialism, guilt, addiction, survival, fear. To heal we need to come together, he says, we need to be the Meggies or we need to be there to help the Meggies persist when they falter.

“That healing part is so important, without it we’re just a dog chasing its tail. We’re going to go round and round and we’re not going to really get anywhere.”

If Meggie could go back, she would watch Sonya more closely. Almost every story she tells or insight she shares is peppered with in hindsight this, in hindsight that, what I can see now that I couldn’t see then. We keep our loved ones safe by knowing who they are, she says, by knowing their history, how they live, and loving them through the moments of pain.

“Don’t neglect them,” she says. “I think families have to be always ready to catch their loved ones in whatever way they can. They have to be forgiving, they have to be patient.”

Meggie Cywink places a hand on her sister Sonya’s gravestone on Aug. 20, 2019. Moments before she placed a ceremonial tobacco tie atop her sister’s grave.

Jane Gerster/Global News

The Government of Ontario is offering a $50,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of Sonya Cywink’s killer or killers. If you have any information, you can contact the Elgin County OPP 1-888-310-1122 or Crimestoppers 1-800-222-8477 (TIPS).

Jane.Gerster@globalnews.ca

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