On Oct. 11, 2017, UNB Fredericton’s Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre hosted a screening of a New Brunswick-based television episode from the acclaimed series “Taken” as part of the third annual Red Shawl Campaign which strives to raise awareness about missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.
The screening was followed by a talk by Lisa Meeches, the creator of the series, Andrea Colfer, sister of the missing and murdered indigenous woman portrayed in the film and Imelda Perley, Elder-in-Residence at UNB. Professors Evie Plaice and Margaret Kress, both from UNB’s Faculty of Education, hosted the event. Kress is also responsible for the Faculty’s Critical Film Series which addresses “issues of colonization, globalization, revolution, gender, class, ability, sexuality, and life.”
New Brunswick connection
On Sept. 10, 2012, human remains were found at New Dam Lake, a very isolated location in Sugarloaf Park, south of Campbelltown. These remains were found by chance in a place that is located on difficult terrain and hard to access. Ultimately, the coroner’s report identified the remains were those of Gladys Simon and found no cause of wrongful death.
Originally from Elsipogtog, Gladys Simon had been 41 years old when she had disappeared 8 years earlier, in 2004, from the Restigouche Hospital, a psychiatric institution. Andrea Colfer, Simon’s younger sister, was not made aware of disappearance until two weeks had passed and mobilized her community to find sister. Community leaders, family and friends like Robert Levy (featured in the film) did as much as they could to find Simon but had come up empty-handed.
Simon’s family thought there were few chances she could have made it out to New Dam Lake alone. As an adult, Simon had “made poor decisions” as a result of the death of her mother and being in foster care for a number of years. Patty Musgrave, Aboriginal student advisor for the New Brunswick Community College, was interviewed in the episode. She mentioned that Simon had been a victim of the Sixties Scoop as she was taken to foster care in Moncton from her home community after her mother’s death.
Simon eventually ended up in Restigouche Hospital where her niece and friends remember her as being happy all the time. Simon had had violent behaviours earlier in her life. On the day she disappeared, Simon had not been allowed a hospital activity. During her daily walk, authorities assumed that Simon had wandered away and become disoriented.
The episode on Simon features a dramatization of the memories reported by family members and friends, as well as photos and historical documents such as police reports and letters. The episode also contained beautiful shots of New Brunswick. According to Meeches, the series seeks to show “how much Gladys [Simon] was loved, will always be loved” as is the case for all of the episodes in the series. For Meeches, this series is “a reflection of the sickness that still exists out there.”
Indigenous educator Andrea Colfer is a proponent of balanced mental health care for Indigenous patients in the province. Colfer admitted she “couldn’t stay and watch the film.” In fact, she had watched it at home before preparing to go to a powwow earlier this year for the first time. Colfer said she “put the food away” and went to bed because she was very affected by the film that day. The next day she went to the powwow and “took a mental break” from the situation.
Colfer says that one of the first things she did was dance with Imelda Perley and lead women in ceremony. Perley commented on the courage of Colfer’s attendance of the screening. Perley mentioned the fundamental and foundational trauma present in the community and cautioned the crowd that she had brought an altar for smudgings for those who “had a heavy heart” after seeing the film.
Prestigious journalist and filmmaker Lisa Meeches joined the discussion by Skype. Meeches, who “comes from a long line of storytellers” was also involved in the documentary “We Were Children” (2012) and recently received the impressive Order of Manitoba.
Meeches was pregnant with a girl when she had the impulse to start the series. She heard a report that indigenous women had a very low life expectancy and she decided to “save her [daughter’s] life before she was born.” Within three weeks of this initial idea, Meeches found the resources to shoot a pilot ($100,000), and did so a week after her daughter’s birth. In fact, Meeches’ “camera has become [her] pipe and then becomes an altar” to the missing and murdered indigenous women. Meeches declares that her work is a calling from her creator.
APTN and CBC supported the “Taken” series created by Lisa Meeches in collaboration with Kyle Irving and Rebecca Gibson. CBC ordered 13 episodes to “resolve this tragic reality” which is now in its second season. Thirty families were on stand-by to share their families. Each episode focuses on a family and on a particular woman or on a place like Vancouver’s downtown eastside or the Highway of Tears.
The research team contacted families; some decided not to participate and new families came forward. Meeches says it depends on where the families are with their healing. One thing that the series has underlined is that most women were from what Meeches deems “good cultural families,” with values. Many of the women were pow-wow dancers.
Started in 2002, “Tipi Tales” is previous project that emerged from Meeches’ private experience of having two young boys. The series is based on the seven sacred laws and features a Canadian First Nations family that lives peacefully in a forest cottage. This children’s series is now sold in syndication all over the world.
The “Taken” series looks for clues to solve the cases and asks for people to contribute and invites witnesses to visit the website for the series to provide information. Meeches says that different police departments are variable in the way they collaborate with the series but most turn back to statements issued at the time of disappearance or the recovery of the remains. In the film, Musgrave asked the members of the viewing public to “think of your own family (…) of how they would feel if you were to go missing” and urged anyone having information to come forward. From the depths of her own sadness about her sister’s death, Colfer added: “somebody knows something (…) this is a small place.”
For Colfer, “each and every one of [the people] in the room have a pipe, it’s called a windpipe.” She invited everyone to “be part of the solution and make the world a better place.” Colfer explained that society needs to question documents “that treated [Indigenous peoples] as inferior peoples.” For Indigenous peoples, Colfer says “we need to look at ourselves now and to know what’s going on.” She remains optimistic that “things are going to get better for our people.” As an Indigenous educator, Colfer developed health and wellness curriculum for the Indigenous schools so that young children will learn early what they need to do so they don’t end up like her sister.
The producers of the series created an app that launched last week “Taken Knowledge Keeper App” which aims to allow “Indigenous communities, audience members, and families to track, manage, and help solve missing person cases.” It also includes “teachings on how to take care of your spiritual self,” according to Meeches. They are also putting out a book for young women of all nations who are dealing with mental health issues and are developing a series for a male version of “Taken” tentatively called “Stolen Brothers.”
With the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls ongoing, the producers of the “Taken” series “find strength in the families that participate” who, according to Meeches, “are stronger than the commission itself.”
Sophie M. Lavoie is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op.