When a garage burned down behind the home of Dawn Anderson in 2011, the RCMP wrongly assumed it was a cultural cleansing because her body was found nearby.
That was part of the “institutional failure” her Cree family recounted Tuesday in Thompson, Man., to the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
“Isn’t it customary to burn the home down they died in?” sister Hilda Anderson-Pyrz quoted a local Mountie as saying.
“I was shocked. I was in such disbelief.”
It was one of the reasons the family said it filed a complaint about how police handled the death of Dawn in the remote Manitoba town of Leaf Rapids, about 200 kilometres west of Thompson, which is hosting the inquiry this week.
Mounties closed the case after it was ruled Dawn died of exposure due to intoxication. The 37-year-old was found frozen to death in her front yard following a party in the garage.
But the family doesn’t accept that conclusion, believing Dawn was the victim of foul play.
“The house is kind of a mess. The phone was ripped off the hook. The TVs got a big crack in the side,” said brother Dennis Anderson.
Then 19 hours later the garage was set on fire.
“Doesn’t that say something?” Dennis added.
The fire wasn’t investigated, nor connected to Dawn’s death said Hilda.
“I found it so odd. It was so cut and dried. At the time they didn’t secure the scene. They didn’t give her the quality or quantity of an investigation she deserved,” said Hilda.
The mystery surrounding Dawn’s death was featured in this documentary by APTN Investigates, a portion of which was played for commissioner Michele Audette Tuesday.
The Anderson family was the first to speak at the two-day hearing. It’s the 14th community visit for the inquiry, which is collecting testimony to advise the federal government on how to combat epidemic levels of violence aimed at Indigenous women and girls.
Hilda is well known in Manitoba as an advocate for survivors and families. Yet this day, she had to help her mother get through the emotional hearing.
“I miss her so much,” Minnie Anderson said of her youngest of 11 children. “I wish that wouldn’t happen to so many girls and women. It’s so hard.”
Most of the remaining siblings crowded around Minnie to share painful testimony – mostly about what they say is a “broken” policing system in the north.
They say Dawn was pronounced dead by a medical examiner over the phone from Winnipeg, about 800 kilometres to the south.
They say officers didn’t tape off the scene, collect evidence or speak to potential witnesses. Most upsetting, they say, was police letting Dawn’s young daughters watch as they loaded the body bag into the back of their truck.
Yet the response to the family’s official complaint decided there was no “neglect of duty.”
Brother Dennis Anderson said the case may be over for police but not for the family.
“We have no trust with the RCMP,” he said. “None of us do. You don’t want to talk to police.”
But, he admitted, that’s what’s stalling any new developments in Dawn’s case.
He said people have identified a male suspect in the community who has informally confessed to killing Dawn but are too fearful to go on the record.
“My sister’s caught in between,” added sister Liana Anderson. “People are coming to us and telling us this all the time.”
Still, they hope the inquiry will order policies and procedures to change to benefit the whole MMIWG community, said Hilda.
“I work with MMIWG families and survivors, and these are things I’ve heard them say repeatedly to governments…These are changes that they want to see.