It was her first public speech and her first standing ovation.
For nearly 45 minutes, Effie Bella Snowshoe captivated an audience of conference delegates with the heartbreaking story of how her son, Eddie Snowshoe, died in a solitary confinement cell seven years ago. The speech represents a new chapter in Ms. Snowshoe's attempts to grapple with her son's loss and marks the introduction of a new voice to the cause of justice reform in the country.
"I'd love to see the end of solitary," she said after the speech. "I don't know how they keep doing that to people."
Mr. Snowshoe's death has become a case study for everything that's wrong with the use of solitary confinement in the federal correctional system. A young Gwich'in man from the remote town of Fort McPherson, NWT, he was forced to serve time several thousand kilometres from home in Winnipeg and Edmonton for an armed robbery conviction.
He attempted suicide on multiple occasions before staff placed him in segregation. There, his mental health declined rapidly. A psychologist spoke to him on occasion through a food slot, but the conversations never lasted more than a minute. Staff lost track of how long he'd been isolated. On day 162 in solitary confinement – Aug. 13, 2010 – he hanged himself.
Ms. Snowshoe told the audience of the night two Mounties came to tell her of Eddie's death. "When I heard that, it was like all my bones were gone. I just fell to the ground."
She called her son regularly in prison, but didn't learn he'd been placed in solitary confinement until 2014, when the Alberta government conducted a public death investigation that accused Correctional Service Canada of negligence and determined that Mr. Snowshoe had fallen "through the cracks" of the justice system.
Shortly after The Globe and Mail published a lengthy account of his life and death, the federal correctional service began drawing down the number of inmates it places in the restrictive form of incarceration.
Her speech on Tuesday nearly didn't happen. Ms. Snowshoe got a haircut and a new top in preparation, but as the hour grew near for her public appearance, she became nervous. To this day, she finds it difficult to talk about her son without emotion overtaking her.
"When I walked through these doors this morning, I didn't know, maybe I would have to pull out," she said.
After a drum performance and an introduction by Katherine Alexander, executive director of the Yukon chapter of the Elizabeth Fry Society and organizer of the two-day conference focusing on systemic racism in the justice system, Ms. Snowshoe found her emotional footing.
"I had a son," she began, before recounting how Mr. Snowshoe's downward spiral started with a visit from a social worker.
The social workers took her two youngest sons from the home after a neighbour reported that Ms. Snowshoe had hit one of them with a bag of dishrags. The removal drove her eldest son, Eddie, into a rage, she told the audience.
Six months later, a judge ordered the boys to be returned to Ms. Snowshoe. Her eldest son, however, never recovered. "He was messed up," Ms. Snowshoe said.
One night, he went missing. Ms. Snowshoe found out the next day that he'd shot a cab driver several hours away in Inuvik in an ill-planned robbery. The driver survived.
Mr. Snowshoe pleaded guilty and she hugged him in court, never to see her son again.
On the stage, she pulled several items from a bag she carries with her everywhere containing keepsakes from her son's life and death. They include a beaded baby strap hand-sewn upon Eddie's birth in 1985, telephone records showing her many calls to prison and his suicide note.
She has never heard anything approaching an apology.
"That's my story," she said to finish her talk. "I hope I was okay."
The crowd – which included First Nations leaders, representatives from the territorial government, lawyers and keynote speaker Howard Sapers, the former federal correctional investigator – stood in applause. Many dabbed at tears.
"Her dignity and her courage are awe-inspiring," said Mr. Sapers, who delivered a speech on correctional reform in Ontario immediately after Ms. Snowshoe's appearance.
Ms. Snowshoe has three remaining sons and spends much of her time babysitting a two-year-old nephew, but has felt for years that she should be pursuing justice for her eldest son's death. "I've been wanting to sue, but nobody wanted to help me," she said. "I still can't get help."
In the meantime, the public appearance has given her a glimpse at a another avenue to pursue justice. "I feel good. This is a new feeling for me," she said after the talk. "I feel I'm letting something out that needs to come out. I could do more of this. I'd like to know that my son didn't suffer for 162 days for nothing."