Veteran MMIWG advocate now head of National Family Survivors Circle

Hilda Anderson-Pyrz is the sister of Dawn Anderson, whose body was found outside her northern Manitoba home in 2011.

Hilda Anderson-Pyrz is the new full-time chair of the National Family Survivors Circle. Photo: Submitted

She is not only its leader, but a member.

Hilda Anderson-Pyrz is the new full-time chair of the National Family Survivors Circle, an important group when it comes to advocating for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in Canada.

The Circle, comprised of relatives who have lost loved ones and survivors of gender-based violence, is an advisor to various parties on how to develop and implement the national action plan from the final report of the national inquiry into MMIWG and its 231 Calls for Justice.

The group meets with the federal government, various partners and Indigenous leaders, Anderson-Pyrz said, while being funded by yet independent of Ottawa.

“I always carry the voices of families of survivors and two spirit and gender diverse people with me,” said Anderson-Pyrz, whose sister Dawn Anderson was found dead in 2011.

“It’s kind of what has guided me.”

MMIWG Liaison Unit

Anderson-Pyrz, a member of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, chaired the Circle part-time while running the MMIWG Liaison Unit she created for Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) – an organization that represents northern First Nations in Manitoba.

The unit’s mission to end gender-based violence and support the design and delivery of culturally responsive and dignified trauma-informed health and wellness was a response to the way RCMP handled the death of her sister in the remote northern town of Leaf Rapids, Man.

Mounties wrongly assumed a garage burning down near where Dawn’s body was located was a form of cultural cleansing.

“Isn’t it customary to burn the home down they died in?” Anderson-Pyrz quoted a local officer as saying. “I was shocked. I was in such disbelief.”

The misconception was only one of the “institutional failures” the Anderson family cited in its complaint about the RCMP investigation.

Mounties closed the case after the medical examiner ruled their sister died of exposure due to intoxication. She was found frozen to death in her front yard following a party in the garage.

Dawn was pronounced dead by the medical examiner over the phone from Winnipeg, about 800 km to the south. Police officers didn’t tape off the scene, collect evidence or speak to potential witnesses.

Hilda Anderson-Pyrz (right) with her late sister Dawn Anderson. Photo: Submitted

But the family believes the 37-year-old was a victim of foul play.

They say the fire wasn’t investigated nor connected to Dawn’s death.

“I found it so odd. It was so cut and dried,” said Hilda. “At the time, they didn’t secure the scene. They didn’t give her the quality or quantity of an investigation she deserved.”

Most disturbing was how Dawn’s young daughters, in the company of a female officer, watched as their mother’s body bag was loaded into the back of a police truck.

Yet the response to their complaint about policing found no “neglect of duty.”

The family learned a male suspect informally confessed to killing Dawn, but witnesses were too afraid to speak on the record.

So they’ve pinned their hopes on the inquiry’s final report that outlines policies and procedures to benefit the entire MMIWG community.

The Circle wants

It’s something the Circle wants for hundreds of affected family members, added Hilda, who was recognized as a top Manitoba change-maker earlier this year.

“Our work will be to ensure there’s accountability measures in place to ensure that our input is always central to these processes,” she said.

“Families and survivors and two spirit- and gender diverse-people must be a part of the process because they obviously know what they want, what they need and what will keep them safe.”

So far, one territory and some provinces have finalized their MMIWG action plans based on the Calls for Justice. But not the Trudeau government that initiated the inquiry in the first place.

“June 3, 2022 is the third anniversary of the release of the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls,” the Circle said in a rare news release.

“However, most of the 231 Calls for Justice are yet to be fulfilled, including Call for Justice 1.7 which would keep governments accountable through a National Indigenous and Human Rights Ombudsperson. This lack of action leaves all Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people more vulnerable to violence than ever.”

Crown Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller has said there would soon be an update on the long-awaited federal action plan.

First Nations water advisories
Crown Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller at a news conference in Ottawa. Photo: APTN file

“We’re failing as a country,” Miller told reporters. “To the extent that respectively falls, in part, on the federal government, we have to look at it through that lens.”

Statistics Canada said earlier this month that more than six in 10 Indigenous women experience either physical or sexual assault in their lifetime, and 46 per cent experience sexual assault. In addition, 81 per cent of Indigenous women who had been in the child-welfare system had been physically or sexually assaulted.

Hilda said the MKO MMIWG Liaison Unit model would work across the country. It provides support, information and advocacy for families at various stages of losing a loved one to violence.

“We’re often the first call,” she said, noting she left MKO for her new role with the Circle. “Mothers, fathers, aunties and uncles reached out and we would be there.”

But the unit is only there to help after the fact. While the need remains for resources to prevent further deaths and disappearances of women and girls beforehand.

“Everyone has the right to live in dignity and safety and Indigenous people have inherent rights to maintain and practice their identity and culture,” said Hilda, who is based in Winnipeg.

“We all have a collective responsibility to end this genocide, and we are all part of the solution.”

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