Voices of change: the many ways to testify to the provincial inquiry

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For Natasia Mukash, it was a difficult decision to come forward and share her story with the Public Inquiry Commission on relations between Indigenous Peoples and certain public services in Quebec – known by its French acronym, CERP.

“A lot of times in our communities, we don’t voice the racism we experience when we go south,” Mukash told the Nation. “But I thought, if I keep silent how can we expect change to happen?”

In 2016, Mukash suffered a miscarriage and had been bleeding for nine days. When she went to the clinic in her home community of Whapmagoostui the doctor informed her that she’d have to be medevaced to Val-d’Or for a possible surgery.

“I asked for a patient escort so that my husband could accompany me, but the nurses wouldn’t allow it,” said Mukash. “So even the Cree Health Board made a mistake by sending me out there by myself.”

When Mukash arrived in Val-d’Or she waited for three hours in the ER before she was moved to a room. At first a nurse checked up on her regularly but then there was a shift change.

“I could hear the new nurse speaking with her colleague outside my door as she looked over my file. I heard her mention the Cree Health Board and then say, ‘I know exactly what we’re going to do with her, we’re going to send her home,’” said Mukash. “She hadn’t seen me, hadn’t cared that I was medevaced, and had already decided I didn’t deserve any compassion.”

When the nurse came into the room and told Mukash she would be sent home before seeing a doctor, she was angry and refused to leave. Eventually, Mukash was told she would be kept overnight but nobody checked up on her during that time. The only care she received came not from a health professional but from a kind orderly.

“The next day when the doctor saw me all he said was, ‘Sorry for the misunderstanding,’” Mukash told the Nation. “Then he gave me a slip to go home and said, ‘Try again in two weeks.’”

At the Val-d’Or airport as Mukash waited for her return flight, her bleeding worsened and she was rushed back to the same hospital in an ambulance. It was then that the medical staff finally took her case seriously. Her husband was called and flew down to be by her side. It had been almost 48 hours since she was first medevaced to address the bleeding.

It’s still difficult to share her story, admits Mukash, as she waits to give testimony to the CERP. The exercise may mean reliving her trauma, but she also believes it’s helped her heal. “I don’t want to say that I’ve forgiven [the nurse] but I have to let go, I can’t change what happened,” she said.

Over the summer months the inquiry has visited and listened to countless First Nations individuals, bands and organizations, as well as anthropologists and historians in order to prepare itself for when the personal testimonies phase begins this fall.

“We will go from the general to the specific because we can’t understand the present without knowing the past,” said the Commission’s Chief Prosecutor, Christian Leblanc. “But our mandate is first and foremost concerned with the Indigenous citizen. It’s one of the first public inquiries that’s focused primarily on individuals instead of companies and organization – potentially 100,000-plus people spread across the territory will be heard.”

Knowing that people who come forward with their stories will be the true test of success for the commission, it’s done its part to ensure the personal testimony phase will be conducted in ways that avoid re-traumatization.

Personal testimonies to the commission with the chance for cross-examination will be an option, but there will also be alternatives for people who aren’t comfortable with that method. People can also give testimony to the commission anonymously, behind closed doors with cameras off. Other avenues include submitting a signed letter to the commission, recounting a situation to an investigating agent who will present the story and their findings to the commission.

Sharing circles will be another method embraced by the commission, where a number of people may share similar stories in the presence of an investigator. Again, the agent would present the stories and findings to the commission on behalf of the people who’ve come forward.

“In the end, we need people to tell us what they’ve gone through no matter how they choose to do so,” said Leblanc. “The quality of our recommendations relies on the diversity of the testimony we receive.”

For a year after the Val-d’Or hospital incident, Mukash wasn’t able to go return there for treatment. She missed medical appointments and needed therapy to process what she went through.

“Sometimes, I still have a lot of anger about what happened. I don’t know what happened to the nurse who did this to me. I don’t know how many people she’s done this to. I don’t know what made her behave that way,” said Mukash, asking, “As an Indigenous woman, do I have to justify my life to her to be treated fairly?”


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