Twenty-three years have passed and justice for Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink seems like it will arrive anytime now. We hold out hope that out there lies the truth about the person(s) responsible for her premature death. Perhaps someone who may hold answers will come forward, realizing, 23 years later they have daughters or granddaughters who will benefit from the truth. The Ontario Provincial Police have been working tirelessly to solve her murder and we as First Nations need to stay vigilant as well. Sonya has become our passion and we will never give up hope that one day justice will prevail.
This story is about Anishinaabe kwe Sonya Nadine Mae and her unborn child. As the 23rd anniversary of Sonya’s passing comes full circle we want to bring awareness to our youth, our leaders of tomorrow. We want people to understand the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, not as statistics but as people who lived are loved.
Sonya Nadine Mae was the twelfth child of thirteen, the seventh daughter, of Ojibway/Potawatomi and Polish decent, from a family of devout Catholics. She was petite and beautiful of appearance.
Our parents Estelle Ruth (nee McGregor) and Wilfred Laurier Cywink Sr. were married June 6, 1949 and began their life and the rearing of a family immediately as family was always the center of their life. Lots of fun, laughter and intellectual stimulation could be found in our home and at our dinner table. Mom’s full time job was to raise the children and give us the life skills to go out in the world and become productive members of society. She taught us the importance of looking out for one other and to stand up for the principle, justice and to be charitable toward our neighbours, whom ever we found that to be in our life. Education and getting off the reserve was important to her, but never to forget the place and the people we came from was a life lesson she taught with conviction. Mom bought two sets of encyclopedias for us to learn and explore the world at home and to be able to help with our school reports, long before the internet or Birch Island had a library.
Dad worked and retired from Canadian Pacific Railway CPR, a job he held for 33 years and taught us the importance of hard work and being responsible for a family. He was quiet and mostly kept to himself, a deep thinker, a true role model. Sonya’s personality was most like Dad. He was a southpaw, a “lefty”, a trait Sonya and Mag shared with him and they always felt a bit special, apart from the rest of their siblings. Something only they possessed, a gift from Dad.
Ojibway is the dominant language of our people, but because Dad was not fluent Mom believed we needed to learn how to speak English correctly and enunciation was important to her, English being the dominant language back in the 1950s and 1960s.We are all thankful today for this important foundation and communication is easy.Â Sitting around the dining room table was always the highlight of our home. Discussing world affairs and debating was a favourite pastime, the principle was key, we all acquired very strong personalities because the fight for the principle of the matter was taught early.
The Indian Act prior to 1986 removed Indian women from their nationhood by the loss of status prior to 1985 amendments, whereby marrying a man who was not a status Indian. We are a family of Bill C-31. We never knew the benefits of being Status Indians as they were once called because our mother who was Status Indian, legally married my father, who was of half Polish decent and half Ojibway. My paternal grandmother lost her status and would never regain it before her death. We did not get the “benefit” of being First Nation until after 1986 and so we had to learn how to get thru the world without it. This fact allowed some of us to realize independence and not to be caught up with the dependency of Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development DIAND.
Sonya expected people to behave and treat themselves and her with dignity and respect, which was a fundamental belief she lived.
Laughter, light-hearted humour, adventure, genuine honesty, quiet and observant and kindness are definitely Sonya’s personality traits. She was a rare find, everyone’s best friend and judged no one. She was a well grounded sister and had a spirit of generosity and loyalty a trait we all long to posses. Sonya never took life too seriously. As young children we learned to polka, she had rhythm and a deep love of music, always the champion by out dancing us all.
Sonya was a domestic diva long before it become fashionable, a queen of grilled cheese and inventing a few new sandwiches along the way. She taught Mag to dip chips in ketchup long before dipping sauces or ketchup chips were popular.
She never had an unkind word for anyone and would see the good everywhere and in everyone. She lent words of encouragement to her friends and picked them up when they were down. She was willing to help people out and put her own interests on hold in the process. Sonya was more of a thinker, an introvert at heart, but when she needed to bring her larger than life personality out she lit up a room. She was a good student because we were taught that education was freedom and there was a big world out there waiting to be explored. Sonya’s aspirations and dreams to be a flight attendant and travel the world, as well as her vision of becoming a writer played a key part of her young life.
Sonya was a fun loving, energetic, and sweet sister. She was considered, “one of the babies” and was handled with kid gloves. She always took a back seat when it came to our youngest sister Anastasia and she was okay with her place in the family. Sonya learned early on that staying in her sister’s shadow was fine.
Writing was a passion for Sonya; her beautiful cursive skill was honed to make you feel she was an artist with words filled with magic and mysterious in nature. Poetry and stories became a way of expression for her. Becoming a writer was always in the forefront of Sonya’s mind and reading her work was a pleasure. If we needed to find her, she could be found immersed in a book, a world of her choosing with no idea of time.
In essence we had two families. Our older siblings began to leave home in 1969. They either married or went off to school. The remaining six children of which, Sonya was the second youngest, grew up under more lenient rules and our parents gave us more freedom. Having more freedom can create its own challenges.
Sonya’s formative years were traumatized, an experience that changed her forever. Eventually, it led to early pregnancy, dropping out of high school, a change in lifestyle, questionable relationships and drug and alcohol dependency. Sonya never regained her dignity, self respect or confidence it was stolen. She essentially became a Stolen Sister. She began to numb her early trauma with substance abuse.
In 1991, Sonya wholeheartedly attempted to mend her fractured life by getting clean, but once again, coping with the overwhelming pain of drugs won over.
Sonya’s story teaches us to report sexual abuse immediately to the authorities, seek professional counselling, encourage educational pursuits, and become role models in our communities. Such noble and valiant actions will empower women to move beyond the pain and become victorious. Without help, the road may lead to addiction, incarceration, and even death.
All Sonya was looking for was love, acceptance and a way to deal with her early experience, something that would haunt her for the next four years. She began to work in the sex trade to support her substance abuse. Unfortunately, Sonya trusted the wrong person (s) and her downward spiral took her life on the weekend of August 26, 1994. We will never cease to forget and continue to seek justice for her.
Biiskwaa-noodin-kwe, Sonya Nadine Mae and her unborn child were gathered to our people outside of Iona Station at an ancient Neutral Indian earthworks site, about 65 kilometers west of London in late August 1994.
Honour Our Ancestors, was a gathering organized for Sonya Nadine Mae at the site where she was discovered on August 30th, 1994, the ancient Neutral Indian Earthworks, at Iona Station Southwold Earthworks.
In 1998, Sonya’s sister Mag and husband Tom asked their mentor, Floyd Hand Looks for Buffalo, Oglala Medicine Man from Pine Ridge, South Dakota to travel to Ontario to perform the sacred rite for Sonya and her unborn child, Releasing the Spirit. She was given her Indian name Biiskwaa-noodin-kwe and both mother and child gained freedom from this world to the next. So very early on, long before protests and the movement began Sonya was at the forefront of change.
The ceremony brought us a great deal of peace and we felt Sonya and her unborn child were being honoured. The gathering was attended by over 400 people and all participants walked away with a traditional teaching and a new respect of First Nations.
A gathering was organized in 2014 on the 20th memorial of Sonya aptly named, In Honour of Sonya Nadine Mae and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, by her siblings Alex, O.Naomi, Ingrid and Mag, Whitefish River First Nation and Atlohsa Native Family Healing Services. The two gatherings took place, one at Sonya’s home reserve, WRFN and the other at London, Ontario simultaneously on Saturday, August 23, 2014.
The twin events were the first gatherings to ever take place for a First Nations woman at the site of her disappearance and at her home reservation to honor and bring attention to MMIW and to seek justice for Sonya. Sonya was again, at the forefront of change and beginning a new trend to help our First Nations people heal and understand the importance of holding gathering to honour Our Stolen Sisters.
In the time since Sonya’s death, there has been much done to honour her memory and raise awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. In 2015 myself and Alex Cywink began working with students from Ryerson University on a project called Shades of Our Sisters. Shades of Our Sisters is an exhibit and online experience co-created by our family and the Carpenter family to share the memories of Sonya as well as Patricia Carpenter. The project is focused on what the loss of their life means and who they are. Audiences are transported into the grief, laughter and love of our families; challenging Canadians to realize the injustice of this National tragedy.
The exhibit opened in Toronto Ontario and travelled to Alderville First Nation, Whitefish River First Nation and Sudbury. To date we have seen over 2,000 people move through the space and come to know Sonya and Patricia. We are continuing to work with the project to travel to new communities and work with more families.
View Sonya’s Stories from the Exhibit here:
Some other places where Sonya’s Story has been covered:
Windspeaker – Vigil held to honour Aboriginal women and end violence (2013)
Toronto Star – Aboriginal Canadians take fight for justice for ‘invisible’ victims to U.N. (November 30, 2002)
Undone Magazine – Walking With Our Sisters Exhibit Honours Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (December 2014)
London Free Press – Anguish still fresh 20 years after killing (June 23, 2014)
Manitoulin Expositor – Commemoration of a sisterâ€™s murder raises awareness of issues of concern to all (August 20, 2014)
Espanola Midnorth Monitor – Honour gathering for missing and murder women in Birch Island (August 20, 2014)
Turtle Island – Sonya’s Story Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink (August 23, 2014)
Manitoulin Expositor – Official enquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women a must (August 27, 2014)
Building A Bigger Wave – Remembering Sonya Nadine Mae, Provincial VAWCC Summer 2014 newsletter (pages 4-5)
London Free Press – Sister of murdered native woman from London seeks healing (August 28, 2014)
CTV News London – Reward posted on anniversary of 20-year-old homicide (August 28, 2014)
Espanola Midnorth Monitor – Community comes together to honour murdered and missing women (August 25, 2014)
Manitoulin Expositor – Response from government on murdered and missing aboriginal women is shameful (September 5, 2014)
VICE – Part I of II – How Indian Status Figures Into the Unsolved Case of a Murdered Aboriginal Woman (May 7, 2015)
VICE – Part II of II – Why the Sister of a Murdered Aboriginal Woman Is Opposing a National Inquiry (May 8, 2015)