After Lesa Semmler and her family finished giving their testimony at the national inquiry hearings into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, another family approached her and said after they heard her speak, they felt more comfortable to go up and give their own testimony.

Lesa Semmler’s mother, Joyce Semmler (left), was studying to be a social worker when she died.
Photo courtesy of Lesa Semmler

Semmler, who is from Inuvik, says sharing stories of past trauma is integral to healing as a community.

“I feel like we’re opening up Pandora’s box and now we’re finally going to start talking about it,” Semmler said. “We’re going to start working together to get healthier as a community. We can heal ourselves. We don’t need someone to come in and fix us.”

Semmler and her family were the second to testify at the inquiry hearings at the Chateau Nova hotel in Yellowknife Jan. 23-25.

In her testimony, Semmler tells the story of how when she was eight years old, her mother Joyce Semmler was murdered by her common-law husband, Peter Emile on Jan. 11, 1985. Her mother was planning to leave town with her that same day.

“People think, ‘Oh, they’re kids, they won’t remember,’ but we remember,” Semmler said in her testimony, as she recalled the abuse her mother went through at the hands of Emile.

“I felt so strongly about being able to tell my story in the Northwest Territories because we all know what’s going on, yet we don’t talk about it,” Semmler said. “So what I wanted to show through my testimony is that we need to talk about it, and not letting it hide away. The more we ignore it, the longer the violence is going to continue.”

After her mother died, Semmler went to live in Inuvik with her great-grandparents. She said this was integral to her healing process.

“I didn’t have to go into care, so I was able to take part in my culture, because I didn’t get taken away from my home,” Semmler said.

“I worked hard, I went to school, I got educated, and I’m trying to be there for other people to say ‘You can turn your life around. It can be better.’ But we need somewhere that our families can get support, too, before a tragedy happens.”

Semmler emphasizes the importance of healing and supporting entire families, including men.

“It’s good that we’re focusing on our women, but we need to focus on the men, too. The men need help and support and healthy ways to deal with their struggles,” Semmler said. “If we want our families to be healthy, we have to include the men.”

Semmler said she hopes her testimony will help those who are living through similar situations today.

“If someone hears my story who is living in that right now, and they have children, maybe it will give them the strength to decide that they don’t want their kids to have those memories,” Semmler said. “So they’ll change the way they’re living or realize they’ve tried, but change won’t happen, and they’ll leave a situation if it’s unsafe.”

In November 2018, the inquiry’s commissioners are set to release a report that looks at the causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada using the information gathered at the hearings. It will also make recommendations as to how the systemic causes of this violence can be eliminated, as well as how to honour victims.

An earlier version of this story appeared in print and contained incorrect information. Joyce Semmler died when Lesa Semmler was eight years old. Peter Emile was not Lesa Semmler’s father. Inuvik Drum apologizes for any embarrassment or confusion the error may have caused. 

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