Hundreds gathered in Ottawa for a vigil on March 5 to commemorate the life and mourn the death of Loretta Saunders, the Inuit student from Labrador who was murdered last month, allegedly by a couple who were subletting her apartment.
The student at Saint Mary’s University had been writing her thesis on missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada when she tragically became one of the very statistics she was compiling. But her family has vowed to complete her research, even as renewed calls for a national inquiry have rung out—most recently from four New Democratic Party (NDP) Members of Parliament, including Romeo Saganash, Cree from the Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou district of Quebec, on February 27.
“Loretta made a grand point. She hasn’t died in vain,” said her sister Delilah Saunders to CBC News on February 28, two days after the pregnant Saunders’s body was found on a highway median in New Brunswick, hundreds of miles from where she lived and attended school. She had gone missing in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on February 13.
Saunders was an Inuk from Newfoundland and Labrador’s Inuit territory of Nunatsiavut who grew up in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, where her family still lives. On February 27 the town’s leadership issued a message of condolence on its Facebook page.
“May you be comforted with your memories of Loretta and find strength in the love and support of family and friends around you,” the 11th Council of Happy Valley-Goose Bay said.
"We have lost a wonderful young woman at the prime of her life. Her loss is being felt throughout Nunatsiavut, and indeed, the entire country,” said Sarah Leo, president of Nunatsiavut, in a statement.
"At the time of her tragic death, Loretta was working on a thesis project on missing and murdered aboriginal women as part of her university studies," Leo said. "But she is not just another statistic. She is a daughter, a granddaughter, sister, niece, aunt and a friend. May she rest in peace, knowing that she left behind many loved ones who will always remember her for who she was, and that her work will continue."
The groups noted that February was Violence Prevention Month in Canada and expressed the hope that her research would be completed and made available to the public. Family members have said that that is exactly what they plan to do, according to The Globe and Mail. And they should not be doing it alone, said Cheryl Maloney, president of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association, to The Globe and Mail.
“I think it’s up to Canadians and Canada to step up and finish her thesis and finish this story,” Maloney said.
Many aboriginal groups noted that such a heartbreak involves all of Canada, not just its Indigenous Peoples.
“On behalf of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, I wish to extend our sincerest condolences to the friends and family of Loretta Saunders,” said the national Inuit leader, Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK). “The impacts of this heartbreak extend across Inuit Nunangat and, indeed, across Canada; it is beyond tragic to witness such a senseless loss of a bright life.”
Indeed the entire country has been struck by both the viciousness of the crime and the tragic irony under which it happened. Although details on Saunders’s death are being withheld pending the outcome of the court proceedings involving the two suspects, 25-year-old Blake Leggette and his girlfriend, 28-year-old Victoria Henneberry, the fact that they allegedly robbed and then killed a pregnant woman, dumping her body beside a highway, speaks for itself. And the fact that Saunders, an honors student, was a hardworking, law-abiding member of society made the issue of violence against indigenous women harder for mainstream Canada to overlook.
“She broke the stereotype of what people can accept as missing and murdered aboriginal women,” Maloney told The Globe and Mail. “It’s easy for people to say ‘okay, they were on drugs. It’s okay, they were a sex trade worker.’ That’s not the whole story of who is going missing and murdered.”
A memorial service will be held for Saunders at Saint Mary’s University on Friday March 7.