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SiSterS in Spirit

On December 10, 2006, Kelly Morrisseau was found stabbed and clinging to life in a parking lot near Gatineau Park. One year after her cousin’s brutal murder, Roxanne Morrisseau shares her memories of growing up with Kelly in Winnipeg’s notorious North End, their decision to seek a better life in Ottawa, and the pain of still not knowing how Kelly spent her final days or who killed her

by rob thomas

On a cOOl late-fall mOrning, Roxanne Morrisseau lines up at the coffee counter on the lower floor of the Terrasses de la Chaudière government complex in Gatineau and orders a crème caramel coffee. Crème caramel is Roxanne’s favourite. Unfortunately, there’s none brewed at the moment. “You’re the only one who drinks it,” the woman behind the counter explains. Then she tells Roxanne to hold on while she brews a new batch especially for her. “Thank you so much,” Roxanne says. “You’ve made my day.” She gives a broad smile before adding, “It doesn’t take much.”

this day is especially hard for Roxanne, who has agreed to meet to reflect back on the short life and brutal death of her cousin, Kelly Morrisseau, who died one year ago. On a cold December morning in 2006, in a parking lot on the fringe of Gatineau Park, a man walking his dog found a young woman clinging to life in a pool of blood. Kelly Morrisseau, just 27 and seven months pregnant, had been stripped naked and stabbed more than a dozen times. Though too weak to speak, she was still conscious when police and ambulance arrived. She was rushed to hospital but had lost too much blood and died soon after. Roxanne says she thinks about her cousin every morning as she crosses the Ottawa River on her way to work. It’s a pain- ful daily ritual, and today was particularly difficult. “I work, and I’m a full-time mom on the weekends, so I sort of hide my

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pain. I hide my tears. But every once in a while,

I feel like I can’t deal with it, I can’t take it, and

I just break down,” Roxanne explains. “Today

was one of those days. Coming in on the bus this morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about the cold weather and thinking about Kelly’s last moments. I look at the Gatineau sign, and

I just start thinking too much.” Roxanne speaks quietly, glancing around to make sure none of her co-workers are nearby. For three years, she has been an entitlement officer with Indian Affairs. Wearing conservative dark slacks and a blouse, her long dark hair pulled back, and the inevitable pass card on a cord around her neck, she looks like any other civil servant in the hulking government complex. Her life now is far removed from the troubled streets of Winnipeg’s notorious North End, where she grew up in “the developments” surrounded by poverty, addiction, and native gangs. Her friends and colleagues today “don’t know about my past,” she says. “A lot of people here probably think

things were handed to me, but they weren’t. It was a struggle and 0.0001 per cent makes it through. I was lucky.” She says the brutality of Kelly’s murder has left her family badly shaken and brought back painful memories of another death 16 years ago. Kelly’s aunt, Glenda Morrisseau, was 19 years old when her partly clothed body was discovered in a secluded industrial area in Winnipeg. Her face had been

photography: suzAnne bird

badly disfigured. “They found her on my 11th birthday,” says Roxanne in a soft voice.

badly disfigured. “They found her on my 11th birthday,” says Roxanne in a soft voice. “It was so hard for me, because I looked up to her and loved her. She was the person that I loved most in the world. “I never thought that I would lose her, and I did. And I never thought that I would ever go through anything that traumatic ever again—and I did.”

it seems shOcking that one family could have lost two women in such violent ways. But Beverley Jacobs, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, has seen so much of this kind of grief that she’s not surprised. The asso- ciation estimates that as many as 500 women have disap- peared or died violently in the past 20 years. And they aren’t alone in raising those concerns. A 2004 report by Amnesty International outlines the factors that have pushed so many aboriginal women to the fringes of Canadian society, mak- ing them vulnerable to violence and murder. Those factors include poverty, discrimination, and government policies

Field of dreams: though this portrait of her was taken in ottawa, roxanne morrisseau said the long grass reminded her of the prairie fields she and her cousin Kelly played in when they were young

that disenfranchised native women and separated native children from their families. Jacobs cites a similar list and calls it “the effects of colonization.” These are issues that Roxanne Morrisseau knows all too well. She says most of the people she grew up around in Winnipeg succumbed to the sense of hopelessness that pervades many native communities. “There’s an extreme lack of education. And there are a lot of people that are so stuck on drugs and alcohol that their children are not being cared for in an appropriate way. It just goes on and on, over and over,” she explains. “It seems there is nowhere for you to turn. Nowhere for you to look. You don’t know what to do with yourself. You don’t know how to better things when everything around you is so messed up. You feel helpless and hopeless. And you get used to it.”

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that’s the kind Of life Roxanne and Kelly Morrisseau sought to escape. In 1995, scared of the violence on their doorsteps and determined to shield their baby daughters

from it, the two teens bought bus tickets and fled to Ottawa, moving into a two-bedroom apartment in Vanier. Roxanne was 16. Kelly was 17. The catalyst for their sudden departure was the death of a mutual friend. Eighteen-year-old Terry Acoby had been brutally beaten to death with a baseball bat. Reports in the Winnipeg newspapers described Acoby as a gang member, something Roxanne vehemently denies. “He was a good boy, and it hurt his mother so much to read that,” she remembers, noting that in her neighbourhood, just talking to someone who lived on the wrong street could lead to a beating. Though they didn’t have much choice, in retrospect Roxanne says Vanier wasn’t the best place for the two teens to set- tle. “Coming to Ottawa, it was so differ- ent that I didn’t know I was immersing myself in a bad neighbourhood,” she says. “In fact, compared to where I came from, Vanier seemed like a child’s playground to me. I didn’t see what it was becoming.”

Delores Peltier sees such teenage mothers on the run all too often. She’s a tenant-relations officer with Gignul Non- Profit Housing Corporation, an Ottawa company that provides affordable hous- ing to aboriginal people. More than half the company’s tenants are single moth- ers; at different times, both Kelly and Roxanne lived in Gignul housing. “Most of the women who come to the city are trying to get away from things,

trying to lead a better life,” Peltier explains. “A lot of the time, they find that they face new challenges here. When they get to the city, they need to think about where they have to live and what kind of support is available for them.” Inexperienced youngsters face many problems—some new and some (depressingly) the very ones they had hoped to escape. To keep rents afford- able, just over half of the company’s 173 rental units are in Vanier, a district where many of the city’s crack houses are situated and that contains well-known pockets where street prostitutes work. But Roxanne tried to hang tough. Though she had left Winnipeg with only a Grade 9 education, over the next few years, she hit the books, attending Rideau High School. She gave birth to her second daughter at the age of 20 but persevered and graduated with her high-school diploma two years later in 2001. “It’s embarrassing,” she says. “That wasn’t that long ago.” From there, she headed to Algonquin College, completing the correctional-worker program and a general arts-and-science diploma in aboriginal studies. She admits that it was a real struggle and speaks with pride of her success. “I was stubborn and very determined,” she says. “If somebody said no to me, I’d try to find a way to turn it into a yes.” Still, she says, she couldn’t have done it without help, particularly from her cousin Kelly.

“When it came time to go to college, it was a choice of who was going and who would stay home and watch the kids,” Roxanne explains haltingly. “I don’t know if it was selfish at the time, but she looked after my daughters while I was in school. She helped me.” During those years when Roxanne was making her way through college and Kelly was babysit- ting, Kelly gave birth to two more children, both sons.

By 2005, the twO wOmen’s lives had begun to move in dramatically different directions. Roxanne graduated from college and found work with a federal halfway house before moving to her current job at Indian Affairs. Busy with a full-time job and her two young daughters, she began to see her cousin less often. It’s hard to say exactly what was happening in Kelly’s life around the same time. Family members who were closer to Kelly than Roxanne was at this juncture are reluctant to say. And it seems clear that Kelly took care to hide her increasingly troubled life from fam- ily and friends who might have helped her. It was around that time that she

began to use crack cocaine and was charged with assaulting her long-time boyfriend, Michael Giroux, with a knife. In December 2005, Kelly’s three chil- dren were taken from her. Roxanne says she knew nothing about her cousin’s drug use. “She never would have shown me that. It’s not something she would have been proud of. I know I can say that I’ve never seen her use it.

And I can’t imagine her doing that.” Kelly’s sister, Farris Morrisseau, says though Kelly tried to hide her struggles with addiction from even immediate family, her troubles became impossible to hide once her children were taken away. “She had her kids, and they were what made her happy,” Farris says. “When she lost her kids, she really got worse. She would cry for her kids.” That kind of situation is one of the biggest challenges for Children’s Aid, says Deborah Chansonneuve. An active mem- ber of the aboriginal community, she has studied cultural and family violence issues for many years. For their own safety, children must be removed from homes of addiction or vio- lence, and yet the effect of the removal is often devastating for the single mother. “It’s profoundly traumatizing to have someone take away your children and to have no idea when or if they’ll be returned,” she says. “When a parent is vulnerable to addiction, the relationship with the children is often one of their few strengths. If that’s taken away, you also take away that sense of purpose, the ability to work on the problem.” Initially, though, Kelly seemed to muster the will to get her life back on track. Farris Morrisseau invited her sister to join her in Winnipeg, where she says Kelly seemed to kick her drug habit. She put on weight, and they looked for work together. Six months later, Kelly had to return to Ottawa to plead guilty to assaulting her boyfriend. She told Farris that while she was

assaulting her boyfriend. She told Farris that while she was ‘We were always together back then,

‘We were always together back then, and I was always the rough, tough one, pushing my way through things. Now I think of her as the strong one, because she went out like a soldier’

ROxaNNE MORRIssEau, cENtRE, WIth hER cOusIN KElly, RIGht, at aROuND aGE thREE IN baNaNa PaRK, WINNIPEG

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there, she planned to fight to get her kids back. It was back in Ottawa that Kelly seems to have drifted quickly back into the street life of Vanier. She had no fixed address and just stayed with friends, her mother, or Giroux’s mother. Nobody really knew where she was. Worse, she started to do drugs again. Police have said that Kelly was associated with drugs and prostitution and that the latter may have played a role in her death. Reflecting today on her cousin’s life at this low point shortly before her death, Roxanne Morrisseau thinks back to the generations of damage that disrupted so many native families. She sees women like Kelly as victims of the lingering trauma of residential schools, which undermined children’s cultural roots and family connections. (They were forced to speak only English, so Roxanne has only vague and distant memories of hearing Ojibway spoken. “I can’t even speak my own native language,” she says.) And at their worst, the schools were sites of systematic violence and abuse—a fact that both Roxanne’s and Kelly’s mothers are only now coming to terms with. “They were beaten and badly abused, in more ways than you can imagine,” Roxanne says. “So they never had the opportu- nity to learn how to be parents. To learn how to show affection. They were badly abused. They were beaten and tortured.” Understanding this has helped her come to terms with the defects of her own upbringing. “It makes me love my mom, my whole family, all the more because of the abuse they endured. I know they’re very strong people, because they’re still here,” Roxanne says, adding that their pasts have made it impossible for her mother and aunt to claw their way out of poverty the way she has. “You can’t take an innocent child and immerse them in a totally bad environment and expect them to make it.”

One year after Kelly Morrisseau’s death, Roxanne says she still finds it hard to reconcile her family memories of Kelly with the way her life turned out and the way it ended. She remembers her cousin as a loving mother, someone who sacrificed herself for others and greeted every situa- tion with a smile. “We were always together back then, and I was always the rough, tough one, pushing my way through things,” she says sadly. “Now I think of her as the strong one, because she went out like a soldier.” In that deserted parking lot, Gatineau police say, Kelly evidently tried to fight off her attacker. And on days like today, Roxanne can’t stop herself from imagining the way her cousin died—fighting for her life, hanging on despite her wounds, thinking of her family and her children, hoping that someone would arrive in time to save her. Kelly Morrisseau’s life was a struggle right up to its last moments. At press time, police had not made an arrest in the case. Roxanne says she has had dreams about the man in the sketch police have released to the public. She says she tries to catch the man, but he always seems to be just out of reach. Though she knows someone is directly responsible for Kelly’s death, she says she also believes that society has played a role, push- ing young native women to its margins, where they may fall prey to men who believe that they won’t be missed. And she’s not alone in her struggle to understand the ter- rible pattern of violence. The Native Women’s Association of Canada is in the midst of a five-year project to document the experiences of families like hers. Called Sisters In Spirit, its aim is to raise awareness of the plight of native women. Roxanne, her mother, and Kelly’s mother are sharing their family’s sad stories in the hope that others will learn from them.

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