Her murder devastated a family and wounded a community, but it is believed sentencing the murderer in a remote Manitoba First Nation should help the healing journey.
“They are heartbroken,” said Justice Chris Martin who sentenced Michael William Okemow to life in prison earlier this month for killing Crystal Andrews in 2015.
“So are many friends and other family, like her mother. She had a bright future. It is the worst thing that could happen.”
Andrews, 22, was the mother of two young children, a wife and a foster mother in Gods Lake First Nation. Okemow, another band member, was arrested in 2018.
The court held the first-ever sentencing hearing in a remote, fly-in community in January, and Okemow received his sentence on Sept. 4.
Court heard it was an early November morning in 2015 when Okemow, now 40, hit two people with his vehicle. He was driving the same SUV when he later spotted Andrews walking on the side of the road near the community’s airport.
Okemow somehow got Andrews into his vehicle, court heard. He drove her out to a winter road, where he beat her with weapons — a rock, stick or tool of some sort. She tried to defend herself.
RCMP officers, who were looking for Okemow because of the earlier hit-and-runs, found his vehicle sunk in wet muskeg. Officers didn’t know at the time Andrews was missing or that her body lay in a nearby bush.
The next day, two boys found her remains partially covered with moss and spruce branches.
RCMP quickly thought Okemow was responsible for the killing, the trial heard, but it took time for his DNA to be linked to the body.
The court made a special effort to deliver the sentencing in the northeastern Manitoba community, which was under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chief Justice Glenn Joyal said it’s one way of trying to improve the justice system for Indigenous people.
“We are acting on some of the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Joyal said in an earlier, separate interview with APTN News.
“There are a number of ways we can answer the call.”
Martin said he used plain language in passing sentence because Cree was the first tongue for most in the community. He spoke about the history of colonialism and residential schools and its detrimental impact on the First Nation.
The judge said the vigour of the band was “broken by Canada’s policies towards First Nations, displacing the social order and culture and, as importantly, by zealous missionaries, who in large part split the Swampy Cree from their traditional spiritual belief system in their Creator.”
The judge described how Okemow was adopted at birth and experienced physical and emotional abuse at home. Okemow started drinking at age 10. Because of his addictions, he was not diagnosed with or treated for schizophrenia for many years. And he had difficulty accessing necessary medication and counselling in the remote community.
Okemow also spent most of his life, before killing Andrews, in and out of jail.
Martin said it doesn’t make sense that Okemow killed Andrews. They didn’t know each other and the woman didn’t do anything wrong.
“Michael killing Crystal has had a very big effect on her family, on this community and beyond, because she is one of so many murdered Indigenous women,” he added.
Okemow automatically received a life sentence with the murder conviction, and the judge imposed a parole ineligibility period of 15 years and 10 months.
After court, Andrews mother said her daughter was never far from her thoughts.
“I have dreams of my daughter, Crystal; her visits in my dreams bring me comfort,” said Beverley Andrews.
Members of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Girls Liaison team of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak were on hand to support the family.
“The death by homicide of Crystal Andrews has affected the entire community of God’s Lake Narrows,” the team said on its Facebook page.
“It was an important step to hold the court proceedings in the community as it gave her family and community members the opportunity to be included in the pursuit of justice for Crystal Andrews. Systems need to change to allow for community inclusion and involvement in the judicial process.”
With files from The Canadian Press