Sunday, September 21, 2014
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Cree grandmother reflects on decades of family deaths

Susan Caribou lost nieces, close-family friends to violence in Manitoba

By Donna Carreiro, CBC News

Sunday dinner at Susan Caribou's is more than just soup and bannock. It is a grassroots effort to nourish the family tree, and wash away the bloodshed that's stained it.


"When I was 11, I came home from residential school to see my parents in a casket," recalled Caribou, 49. "They were murdered, and I have (since) lost many, many family members who've gone missing or were murdered."

Which is why, when the body of Tina Fontaine was pulled from the river last weekend, Caribou thought it was her niece, Tanya Nepinak – believed killed but whose body has not been found.

Then she learned Fontaine's body was wrapped in plastic and instantly thought of her cousin, Carolyn Sinclair – also believed killed and also found wrapped in plastic.

"She was five months pregnant at the time," Caribou said. "A baby boy. He died too."

The Cree grandmother wept softly as she listed off the examples in her bloodied past.

There was Nancy Dumas, her childhood caregiver and her sister's mother-in-law. Dumas would gather all the children in her tent near Flin Flon, line them up to sleep and stand guard at the entrance to protect them from the alcohol-fueled violence outside.

Until, one day, Nancy Dumas herself needed protection. But no one knows from whom or why.

She disappeared without a trace, and everyone, including the authorities, suspect the worst.

"She's called one of the 'cold cases'," Caribou said. "She's one of the police's cold cases, but I don't think anyone's ever really looked for her."

Then there was Erma Murdock, a close friend from childhood who was last seen in Winnipeg 14 years and two months ago and hasn't been heard from since.

Police believe she hitch-hiked to Vancouver, worked in the sex trade and was killed.

Now, her case is under investigation by Project Devote, the joint Winnipeg Police Service and RCMP task force focusing on missing and murdered indigenous women.

"Lots of stories about what happened to her, but we don't know," Caribou said.

The most recent tragedy? Another niece — Skye Midnight Sun Bighetty was strangled to death last year at her home at Pukatawagon. She was just eight years old.

Her older brother, Caribou's nephew, said he'd heard voices telling him to kill her because she was otherwise destined to become a sex trade worker.

He was found not criminally responsible for the crime and is currently in psychiatric care.

"My prayers are that we all get together and heal," Caribou said. "With me, with so many losses and missing and murdered family that I've been losing, I paid a lot of attention to my children."

When her six kids were small, she'd volunteer at their school and serve it in the lunch room. In the evenings she'd serve it up for supper while they did their homework.

Today, they're adults, but the tradition remains intact.

Each Sunday, Caribou insists on a family dinner with all of her kids and now all of her grandchildren; seven in total, an eighth on the way.

In her mind, the stronger the family bond, the safer they are from harm. And they all look out for each other.

"I always tell my kids to let me know where they're at or give me a call, and I panic if I don't hear from my kids," she said, adding they even have an agreement in place: Get in contact at least once a day, and if you don't, they'll consider you missing and contact police.

In the meantime, Caribou continues to pray for a peaceful future and breaks bread each week with her loved ones.

"They look forward to it, especially my grandkids," Caribou says, smiling. "They give me hope, my grandchildren."

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