Providing support through tears and testimony
Traditional healer Lottie Johnson among elder support at MMIWG inquiry
Lottie Johnson of Eskasoni powered down her cell phone when she arrived at the Women’s Ecumenical Conference in Baddeck on Nov. 4. She just wanted to relax, in silence, for awhile.
Earlier that week, Johnson took part in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), in Membertou, which heard testimony (both private and public) from families of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The inquiry shed light on the magnitude of violence towards Indigenous women, and the failure of authorities to address the issue.
Johnson is a traditional healer who has worked as an addictions counsellor for the last 20 years. She was called upon by the inquiry to provide elder support to those providing testimony as well as community members who gathered to listen.
The Standard spoke with Johnson about her experience providing support at the inquiry and how she gathered strength to be present for each individual seeking comfort.
What was your role throughout the inquiry?
To help people that were having a hard time, to do smudging if they wanted to be smudged or if they just needed to sit there for a bit and calm down. Talk to them, spend some time with them, reassure them that things are going to be alright.
Mostly, I sat with them and listened.
Sometimes people just don’t want to be touched. You can’t just hug them unless they make the attempt to come towards you to hug you or take your hand. Then it’s alright to hug them.
It’s almost like a death and going to the funeral all over again because you open up all these emotions and feelings.
Who approached you for support?
A lot of the family members or relatives. When you live in these communities mostly everyone knows who you are. So, they know the elder support members there, that come from the other reserves. It’s people you can feel safe talking with or people that you know who may be able to give you some support, reassuring words.
I still know family members who never came and probably won’t because it’s too hurtful or painful for them to talk about it.
How do you prepare to provide support for so many people?
It gets tough. I pray beforehand. I went from one thing into the next thing. I find the only thing that I have to ground myself is to smudge. If I’m going to sit there and cry with them then someone is going to have to come along and help me. A couple of times I got emotional in there and I had to go find somebody. I told one fellow, ‘You know what I need? I need someone to smudge me and I need a coffee.” And that was it. Because I was running all morning and it was getting hectic. I was almost on the verge of tears and then I said, ‘No, I can’t. If I start, I won’t be of any help, to anybody.’
How many people did you support over the inquiry?
70, 80? It’s just something you keep on doing, you go from one individual to the next. I carry sage and an eagle feather. If people needed to be brushed down, I brushed them down. If I know the family and they know me, sometimes it’s sharing stories about the person who passed.
I was assigned mostly in the main room where the commissioners were, not the private hearings. I did some smudging with people going into the private hearings, the ones who didn’t want it to be public just yet. These were the ones I helped smudge. When they came out from the private meetings, we were there waiting for them. I found some were relatives of mine, and was supportive of them.
I had two feathers – my mother’s and another eagle feather. I gave my niece a feather and I thanked her because I always wanted to talk about her sister who went missing. But I said it isn’t my story and it has to come from the family. I didn’t want to upset them. I left it up to them. And so my niece picked it up and she went to these things, she started investigating what happened to her sister. I said, “I’m very proud of you. I know if my mother were alive today, she would be here with you. But in spirit, granny is here with you.”
On Oct. 28, four locations around Victoria County hosted simultaneous Raising the Villages celebrations welcoming the County’s youngest citizens. Each child received a certificate signed by community leaders officially welcoming them.
"We want to put the word out to our communities that we care about our families and children. We want to nurture the families that are from here as well as the ones that are new,” said District #2 Councillor Perla Macleod.
Newcomer to the area Michelle Moore remarked how the event shows the community’s inclination to make people feel welcome.
Shayla-mae Roberts holds her certificate signed by Wagmatcook Chief Norman Bernard.