‘A man killed my sister. I want to know who did it.’
Terri Brown’s voice is soft and measured, but not at all tentative. She says it again. ‘I want to know who did it.’ Brown, chief of B.C.’s Tahltan First Nation, is speaking about her youngest sister Ada Elaine Brown, the baby of the family, the most loved
Fifteen years ago, Ada, a 41-yearold mother of two, was found dead in a hotel room in Prince George. There was no criminal investigation and no one was ever charged in her death.
Brown met recently with federal government ministers who travelled to Prince George as part of the pre-consultation with families in advance of the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.
Brown said she is pleased that representatives of the federal government chose to meet first with families, but cautioned that the inquiry must be about more than telling stories. Brown told the ministers that unless the inquiry is for solving cases and getting perpetrators off the street, she will not be at the table.
“The inquiry has to have teeth,” she said in a phone interview with The Vancouver Sun, and it must be designed “to examine every case and to bring those cases to court. Otherwise I’m not going to be there.”
For 15 years, Brown has shared her sister Ada’s story, reliving the anguish with the purpose of creating change for women in her community.
In 2014, Brown and her sister Kitty participated in a video created by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, telling Ada’s story.
Each telling of the story is painful, and yet when Brown spoke of her little sister, her voice lightened with joy.
Ada’s birth was auspicious. “She was the first one of us born at the hospital,” recalled Brown, who lives in Telegraph Creek in northern B.C. “I didn’t know what the big deal was. We all had to wait, and then she made this big appearance. And she was perfect.”
Ada was the youngest of eight siblings. “She was the prettiest and the funniest. Everyone was always talking about the things she said,” Brown said. “She was the life of our family.”
When Brown was 10, she and her brother were apprehended by the Indian Agent and taken to residential school.
“My mother begged to keep her — she was the baby, Ada — and they said OK, but you have to let us take these other two. So they took us. But she was lucky. She didn’t have to go.”
Ada was spared residential school, but as a young adult she had trouble finding her way. Though she struggled, she stayed in touch with her family.
“She was being abused,” Brown said. “Our family was worried about her. Her daughter and I tried to get her away.”
Her voice quieted to a whisper.
In April 2001, Ada was found dead. Before the autopsy was performed, authorities told the family that Ada had died of natural causes.
But when Brown and her siblings gathered to say goodbye, they saw the bruises on Ada’s head and body that told another story. “She had been beaten so badly we barely recognized her,” Brown said.
There were too many unanswered questions. Who did it? And how could a beating death be considered natural? And why, if an aboriginal woman is found beaten and dead in a hotel room, is that death considered natural?
Brown knows only two things for sure: someone killed her sister, and no one in authority cared to investigate. Several months later, the autopsy report came in the mail, stating Ada died of a brain aneurysm. She had gone to the hospital three times, and was given Tylenol and sent away.
“If she had an aneurysm it was because she was beaten so badly,” Brown said quietly. “Someone killed her and he is out there walking around in our community, free.”
Brown believes more than one person was responsible.
“From the doctor who said take some Tylenol and go home, to the RCMP, to the coroner who, before the autopsy was done, concluded it was natural causes, to the men who are paroled and are out on the streets preying upon these women — all of these things are connected,” she said.
Brown — who returned to Telegraph Creek in 2005 to support the Tahltan nation in protests against a proposed mining development, and stayed to become chief — has been an activist since she was a young mother living in Vancouver.
In the 1990s, Brown joined a march after a young aboriginal woman was killed on Powell Street. She was deeply moved as participants left flowers on the ground where women had been murdered or disappeared.
“I couldn’t ignore it after that,” she said. “It was always with me. I was just a young mother, a young activist. I didn’t think I could make much of a difference, but I took it in my heart and I said one day I’m going to do something about this.”
Brown founded the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network in 1996 and was instrumental in raising the alarm about missing women on the Downtown Eastside. Later she served as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women organization, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada, which launched the Sisters in Spirit campaign to establish a database on missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Brown has already been through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada process, and in retrospect she has been struck by what was not found: justice.
Looking back at the TRC process, Brown wondered, “What good is telling stories about crimes if no one is ever charged? Why would we go through this suffering and pain in the end just to tell our story?”
Brown said even if the inquiry leads to arrests and conviction, there must be policy change that directly addresses the issues that lead to tragedy for First Nations children: racism, poverty, isolation, lack of services and discrimination.
“There must be support systems that would allow them to get work, to have stable homes, to be protected from criminals on the streets,” she said.
“These women died because racism was acceptable, because sexism was acceptable, because classism was acceptable. We had no value. If we were valued, the first woman who was murdered would have been investigated. We wouldn’t have to wait for 1,100 women.”
The habit of looking away from the problem, Brown said, is shared by authorities, by social workers, even by families. Of the estimated 1,100 or more cases of aboriginal women who are missing or murdered, very few have been solved.
“That means the killers are still out there and in our communities,” Brown said.
“A man killed my sister. I want to know who did it.”
These women died because racism was acceptable, because sexism was acceptable, because classism was acceptable.
TERRI BROWN CHIEF OF THE TAHLTAN FIRST NATION