“My face tells it all,” says Bridget Tolley. “It’s still feeling the same way. Disappointment. Discouraged.”
The 57-year-old is talking about a photo taken during a vigil held last October on the steps of Parliament Hill. Tolley started the annual event in 2006 to demand justice for Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women, including her mother.
In the picture, Tolley’s pained face is a stark contrast to the smiling black and white image she’s holding of her mom. The words “Gladys Tolley Killed 2001” are impossible to miss — as is Justin Trudeau, who is standing behind Bridget.
He is the first prime minister to join the vigil. But Tolley doesn’t see this as meaningful. If anything, it made her angry as she realized how hard she has worked and how little the government has done.
“I feel that nothing is happening,” she says. “I don’t feel anything is going to happen even after the inquiry.”
Tolley has been fighting for answers since her mother’s death 16 years ago. She has organized, attended and spoken at countless events. She helped start and run organizations, like Families of Sisters in Spirit, and Justice for Victims of Police Killings. And she’s maintained her popular Twitter feeds and Facebook pages.
Because she’s so prominent, Tolley is a go-to interview for journalists writing stories on missing and murdered women. It’s almost impossible to find a Canadian media outlet that hasn’t quoted her.
“When I first started, I didn’t think that looking for justice meant all this,” the Algonquin great-grandmother says.
Gladys Tolley’s death is still under a shroud of unanswered questions. The 61-year-old was struck and killed by a police car as she crossed the two-lane highway that runs through the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg reserve in Quebec.
Right from the beginning, Bridget wasn’t satisfied with the investigation. When she finally got her hands on the 100-page police report, she noticed some concerning details. She saw in the report that the officer who investigated Gladys’s death is the brother of the officer who drove the car that hit her.
With the support of several national Aboriginal organizations, Tolley asked the province for an inquiry. She was turned down in 2010.
“I just want to know what happened to my mother,” she declared to a crowd of onlookers at a vigil a year later. “I need honesty, transparency and respect.”
Tolley doesn’t think she’ll get any of that from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which will soon begin public hearings. In fact, she didn’t even register to be part of it.
She feels the inquiry isn’t talking to enough families. She’s disappointed that the police’s handling of cases doesn’t appear to be a focus. She thinks another study is pointless and that the $54-million budget could be better spent on action.
“We’ve been studied to death,” she says. “How many more studies do we need to have when we come down with the same results as all the other studies? Poverty, homelessness, education. It goes back to the reserve and the way we’re getting treated.”
After so many years of advocating, Tolley is starting to worry about the strain on her own health, but she’s determined to keep going “as long as I can walk and run and talk.”
When face to face with Trudeau, she took the opportunity to share her frustration. “I begged him to please help us,” says Tolley as she breaks down in tears. “I told him I don’t want to come back here no more. It hurts every time. Oh my God. I’m just tired.”
Kristy Woudstra is a freelance journalist in Toronto.
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