Presencing on (and beyond) our turtle’s back: In memory of Hilary Bonnell (1983-2009)

Written by Josephine L. Savarese on June 29, 2016

TRIGGER WARNING: This article or section, or pages it links to, contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.

Dr. Eve Tuck, currently an Associate Professor of Critical Race and Indigenous Studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto, visited New Brunswick in 2014 and gave a talk on her decolonizing research.[1] Since meeting Eve Tuck, I have been thinking about her call for an end to “damage-centred” studies on Indigenous women. For Tuck, this fixation is part of the colonial violence faced by women. I wondered whether her challenge might be taken up in a variety of contexts, even in relation to Indigenous women who have gone missing and have been found murdered.  A chapter I wrote in Forever Loved: Exposing the Hidden Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada (Demeter 2016) examines the homicide of New Brunswick teenager, Hilary Bonnell. While writing, I worked to find something beyond a story of only tragedy.[2]

Many readers will know that Hilary disappeared in September 2009 while walking on a road on the Esgenoôpetitj (Burnt Church) First Nation one early morning. She was sixteen and had spent the evening celebrating the end of summer with friends. After weeks of frantic searching, an adult relation, Curtis Bonnell, admitted to detaining Hilary against her will, sexually assaulting her, suffocating her on the lawn in the backyard of his home and disposing of her body.  Hilary’s remains were found deep in the woods of the Acadian Peninsula after Curtis revealed the location. Accompanied by an Elder and by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Curtis led the team to the burial site.

In the face of the terrible, heartbreaking facts, the temptation to see only Hilary’s victimization is clear. Admittedly, it was a sad task to track Hilary’s agency while researching the case. It also seemed an important one given Tuck’s challenge to researchers who want to foster decolonial aims. To learn more about Hilary’s life, I listened to her mother, Pam Fillier, share memories of happy moments with her beloved daughter with the Native Women’s Association of Canada.  In this moving passage, Pam described a day they spent together when Hilary was around eleven years old.  Pam stated that the pair “loved lilacs” because they were “so beautiful.” While driving in a large car, they spotted a lilac bush filled with blooms. Pam continued “And we took them, as many as we could. We filled the whole back seat full of lilacs. We had lilacs in almost every room.” [3]

Dr. Sandrina de Finney might cite this poignant recollection of a mother and daughter collecting flowers to beautify their home as an example of what she terms “presencing,” after Leanne Simpson’s Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence.[4] de Finney uses this concept to help us understand indigenous girls’ ways of communicating to the world that they are vital, valuable, alive and self-determining through seemingly ordinary gestures.[5] Their varied acts of presencing range from “avoiding, protecting, contesting, laughing, hoping” to “dreaming, connecting, documenting, imagining, challenging”.[6]  Because de Finney emphasizes the importance of situating “Indigenous girls’ everyday processes of resurgence and presencing” in the context of the “intersecting forms of traumatic violence that colonial states and societies produce,” her insights help contextualize Hilary Bonnell’s life and last moments.[7]

For me, Hilary Bonnell’s presencing strategies as a young Indigenous woman are also evident in the details that emerged during the prosecution of Curtis Bonnell. For example, the last time that Pam Fillier heard from her daughter was the night before her death.[8] Sandrina de Finney would likely see particular significance in the fact that Hilary called her mother at 3:00 AM to discuss their shopping trip scheduled for the next day. Witnesses confirmed that Hilary appeared happy about the plan. Fillier reported the conversation ended with both parties expressing love for the other. Fillier never heard from her only daughter again. That some of Hilary’s last known statements were expressions of love might, in de Finney’s view,  complicate settler narratives of Indigenous girls’ as existing in ‘ungrievable bodies’ (citing Butler 2009) which possess no “hope” or “capacity” as “victim bodies, disenfranchised bodies.” [9]

The evidence established that Hilary fought back against Curtis and attempted to resist his sexual violence. One way she did this was to call for support. Text messages Hilary sent to her first cousin and close friend, Haylie, over the course of the evening into the early morning started from a “party atmosphere theme” to her final messages that “demonstrated that she was afraid of something or someone.” [10] Hilary’s bids for assistance went unanswered because her cousin’s cell phone was dead.

From a presencing perspective, the text messages are important. They work against the characterization of Hilary’s state as one of absolute victimization. Even though Hilary’s extreme fear is obvious, she also had the strength and presence of mind to call for help. These moments show Hilary’s courageous efforts to counter the very real and terrifying violence she encountered using the limited means available, her resolve and her cell phone.

Hilary’s legacy of resistance has the potential to benefit future generations. In response to her death, her friends and family dreamed of building a youth centre they planned to name “Hilary’s House” on the Esgenoôpetitj (Burnt Church) First Nation. While they were not able to realize this goal, their efforts to remember Hilary are inspiring. This is particularly so in the broader context of Atlantic Indigenous resurgences. There are many examples including the formation of a Peace and Friendship Alliance, a coalition of Indigenous and non-indigenous supporters, in March 2015. The coalition is working towards environmental justice and sovereignty guided by Peace and Friendship treaties.

Forever Spirit Dancing

By highlighting presencing, de Finney works to counter “the pervasive image of indigenous girls as exploitable and dispensable.”[11] Joining her quest to highlight agency seemed especially important when conveying a story about a previously missing and found to be murdered young indigenous woman who loved many things, including lilacs.  It seems worth acknowledging that irrespective of the scale, Hilary’s actions were brave given the powerful forces she confronted.

It is my hope that this effort to honour Hilary’s precious (and too few) acts of presencing might offer a sliver of comfort to her grieving family and community. The impact of her death on those who loved her is made obvious in many ways, including that over five hundred people attended her funeral. As her mother and community have made clear, Hilary Bonnell will be forever loved, as she spirit dances on and beyond the turtle’s back, in perpetual acts of presencing.

Josephine L. Savarese is an Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, St.  Thomas University in Fredericton,  New Brunswick. In the chapter, “Analyzing Erasures and Resistance Involving Indigenous Women in New Brunswick, Canada” (in Forever Loved: Exposing the Hidden Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada, Demeter 2016), she combines a focus on environmental justice and criminal justice in the examination of two Atlantic case studies on “missing” Indigenous women, from the homicide outlined in this text to the criminalization of a land defender. As she writes this blog, the lilacs are coming into bloom in New Brunswick. Josephine can be reached at

This article was first published by Blogging For Equality.

[1] Eve Tuck “Respect and Risk: Chasing the benefits of research in Indigenous communities”,  November 13, 2014,
Marshall d’Avray Hall, Room 143, Faculty of Education, Colloquium Series.
[2] Edited by D. Memee Lavell-Harvard and Jennifer Brant.
[3] Digital Life Story of Hilary Bonnell, Native Women’s Association of Canada, Youtube<>
[4] Arbeiter Ring Pub. 2011.
[5] de Finney, S. (2014). “Under the shadow of empire: Indigenous Girls’ presencing as decolonizing force”. Girlhood Studies, 7(1), 8-26.
[6] At 22.
[7] At 20.
[8] R v Bonnell, NBQB 289 para 10.
[9] De finney, supra, at 10.
[10] R v Bonnell, NBQB 376, para 6.
[11] De Finney, supra, at 20.

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