Francyne Joe remembers her eighth birthday, not for the McDonald's restaurant in Kamloops, B.C., where it was spent with friends, but rather for what she saw en route from her home on Lower Nicola reserve. She spotted her 12-year-old cousin, Monica Jack, riding her bike along the highway. It was May 6, 1978 – the last day Monica would be seen alive.
In the years since, Ms. Joe has travelled that stretch of road, one of several B.C. highways notorious for the alarming number of indigenous women who have disappeared or died violently along them. On Saturday, Ms. Joe was appointed interim president of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), taking on the role just weeks after the historic launch of a national inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Monica is among them.
"It's a lot of responsibility," Ms. Joe, 46, told The Globe and Mail on Sunday. "There is a lot of work that needs to be done, and it needs to be done in a very empathetic and respectful manner."
Ms. Joe was appointed at NWAC's annual general assembly in Gatineau, Que. She replaces Dawn Lavell-Harvard, who resigned Thursday to spend more time with her family.
Born to a young mother, Ms. Joe was adopted by a cousin and raised by her grandparents on Lower Nicola reserve, where she picked berries, tended to horses and cattle and learned to respect elders. Looking back, she said, she can see the impact of the residential school system on her relatives, in the form of alcoholism, poverty and violence.
In pursuit of better education opportunities, she moved with her adoptive mother to Kamloops for high school. She did well there – too well, in fact, for some of her indigenous peers. She was called a "red apple," she said, because she was perceived as "red on the outside and white on the inside." Ms. Joe, who studied business at Thompson Rivers University, would encounter racism and sexism throughout her life. This, she said, spurred her work as a human-resources consultant promoting equity and supporting indigenous entrepreneurs.
This week, the mother of two will step down as president of the BC Native Women's Association to take over the national position. She plans to move from Kamloops to Ottawa, and will remain in the interim role until a president is elected to a three-year term at NWAC's annual general assembly next year.
NWAC was at the fore in pressing for the long-sought national inquiry, and it will undoubtedly play a key role as the commission carries out its work over the next two years. Ms. Joe said her priority will be ensuring that victims' loved ones are heard and supported. "We need to ensure that the inquiry is going in the direction that the families want," she said. "The children of these victims need as much support as they can get." She also said she intends to continue pressing for an independent civilian body that would review cases where the quality of the investigation has come into question. She plans to raise the issue with federal ministers, as well as with the RCMP and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
Nearly one month into the inquiry, Ms. Joe said she had expected more to have been done. There is no website or phone line for victims' families to call with questions or concerns. The independent commission is currently working out of a federal government building in downtown Vancouver, though commissioner Michèle Audette said her understanding is that the location will change. The commission appointed a temporary executive director earlier this month, but it has yet to hire permanent staff.
Ms. Audette, a former NWAC president, addressed the organization's assembly over the weekend, assuring attendees that she is eager to get the cross-country hearings and research under way. "We're all anxious – everybody wants to start," she said, adding that the commission met over the course of three days earlier this month and has been holding daily teleconferences. "There will be a time when me or someone else will listen to the survivors, victims' family members, institutions, Canadian citizens, experts and leadership."