This past summer, after months of consultations, the government officially launched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. With funding of over $50 million, it is considered the largest inquiry in Canada’s history. It was a long day coming for the country’s Indigenous community and its supporters. In 2014, the RCMP reported that there were over 1,000 cases of homicides and unresolved missing persons investigations involving Aboriginal women and girls between 1980 and 2012, along with more than 150 missing-women cases dating back to 1952. And just last year the United Nations published a shocking report stating that Indigenous women in Canada were five times more likely to meet a violent end than their non-Indigenous counterparts.
In a nationwide pre-inquiry, families and loved ones of victims, as well as survivors of violent assaults, were invited to share their thoughts and experiences in order to identify root causes and discuss concrete solutions.
Jaime Koebel, an Indigenous-rights activist, artist, and educator living in Ottawa, is one of these survivors. This is her story.
Jaime Koebel woke up on a mattress at a house party in rural Alberta, the first thing she noticed was that the boy she had a crush on was hovering over her. Visions of other faces like his were running through her head — and that’s when she noticed the hole in the door. Eyes peered in from beyond. “Help me,” she said, her voice a whisper. He jumped off her and ran out. She passed out again.
The party was at the Kikino Métis Settlement, about 30 minutes away from her hometown of Lac La Biche. The 15-year-old had been driven to the party by that boy, that crush, the same person whose face haunted her for years after. After driving past swaths of snow-covered bush dotted with houses, they stopped at one with yellow siding. A typical government-built structure, it lacked decorations and personal touches.
“No parents were around, and I got the impression that parents were never really around the house,” Koebel, now 38, recalls. She is striking, with a slim build, dark hair, and a unique set of indigo-coloured tattoos near her temples composed of simple lines and dots that slant toward her eyes. As a teenager, Koebel was a model student interested in the arts. She was a member of almost every sports team, as well as a peer-support group, and had a place on student council. But that evening in Kikino would change everything.
The house was filled with people she knew from school, boys from the junior hockey team, and other friends. It was the first time she had tasted a beer or smoked a cigarette. She accepted two drinks; when she tried to turn down more booze, some boys grabbed her ponytail and kicked the back of her knees while another person plugged her nose and poured hard alcohol down her throat. Needless to say, she missed her strict 10 p.m. curfew.
At one point, her head spinning from alcohol, she went to the bathroom. As she lay on the cold floor between the bathtub and the toilet, a group of girls who bullied her daily walked in.
“I would exit a classroom, and I’d get punched in the head by them. When I was walking to work, they would throw me down and kick me in the head with Doc Martens,” Koebel says.
But this time it was different. This time they seemed nice.
Then one girl pulled out a syringe. She filled it with alcohol and injected it into Koebel’s vein.
“I don’t remember a whole lot after that. I remember waking up with different people on top of me,” Koebel says.
While she was unconscious, she was sexually assaulted multiple times by boys she’d grown up with. When she came to the next day, she had a ring of hickeys around her neck. She had missed her shift at the La Biche Inn. By that time, there were already rumours about the party and what had happened on that mattress. “Because it was my first time drinking, I put a lot of blame on myself,” says Koebel, sipping a cup of tea in her Nepean home. “I was just so ashamed. I didn’t want to set foot in my town ever again.”
One of the party hosts was heading to Edmonton, where Koebel’s aunt lived, and offered to give her a lift. She’d have to wait a few days at that yellow house, which gave her plenty of time to relive the horrible, if foggy, events of that night.
While at her aunt’s, she got a call from a police officer who had heard from concerned community members about the party — and the assault. When she said she didn’t know if she had been raped, he seemed incredulous and asked her if she was sore.
“He was really harsh and insensitive. And I just got so nervous and anxious and I just wanted it over, wanted nobody to talk about it, wanted to just shut down. And so I just hung up on him and he never called back. And nobody ever called back.”
Koebel went “missing” for four months. Her relationship with her parents was reflected in the aftermath of the assault: in the four months she stayed with her aunt in Edmonton, her parents never called. “I didn’t feel any support. [My mother] didn’t come looking for me.”
(Since then, Koebel and her mother have repaired their relationship; “she has been one of my biggest supporters,” Koebel says.)
“The reality is that sometimes the families are the reason women leave their communities in the first place. Women sometimes don’t want to be found by their families. Even if they have gone missing, their families haven’t looked for them,” Koebel says. At 38, she is a few years older than her Métis grandmother was when she was found dead in a bathtub in St. Albert, Alberta. The family still doesn’t know exactly what happened.
She knows that more needs to be done to protect Indigenous women who have suffered violence, which is why she supports the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and shared her story with the pre-inquiry in early 2016.
“Even though we’ve been advocating for this for a long time, we’re just so used to having it swept under the carpet or people saying ‘no’ or promises that aren’t fulfilled.” When Koebel heard that the inquiry was going to happen, she says, “I literally felt like a giant weight came off my shoulders. The next day I woke up feeling lighter. After all these years, I felt validated.”
More than 20 years after that night at the house party, Koebel is not only surviving but thriving.
In 1999, Koebel returned to Edmonton and began a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Alberta. In 2000, she moved to Ottawa to work at the Aboriginal People’s Television Network and serve on the National Association of Friendship Centres’ Aboriginal youth council; she transferred to Carleton University and began to focus on Native and Northern studies via the university’s Canadian Studies program.
Moving to Ottawa was a move to safety, she says. “I came to Ottawa, and when I met Aboriginal girls who said they hadn’t been sexually abused, I didn’t believe them. Every single Aboriginal girl that I knew growing up had been sexually abused. Every single one of them.”
In her new safe haven, she became a role model and an advocate. She worked as a youth adviser to the Department of Canadian Heritage in 2000 for the World Conference Against Racism and travelled to Europe, Chile, and the United States; in the summer of 2001, she worked with the Native Women’s Association of Canada, at which time she became aware of missing and murdered Indigenous women as a bigger problem; by 2004, her position as a role model was recognized by the National Aboriginal Health Organization. Michaëlle Jean, governor general at the time, invited her on a state visit to Mexico, Costa Rica, and Guatemala in 2009 in recognition of her work as an artist.
As she racked up the accolades and developed her career, Koebel’s personal life was also busy. She gave birth to twin girls Hunter and Riley in 2002; Jacob arrived in 2003. Around the same time, she split up with their father.
After the breakup, the struggle with drugs and alcohol that had plagued her since that night in Kikino reared its ugly head again. “After that first time, I would always drink to get smashed,” says Koebel. “Even if I tried to drink ‘normally,’ I couldn’t. I was sober when I conceived my kids and when I was pregnant, but it’s always a struggle.”
On New Year’s Day in 2012, she ended up in the hospital. Nine months later, Koebel went into treatment at the Vesta Recovery Program for Women. In a little brick house on James Street, she worked the program alongside housewives, prostitutes, and homeless women. The ritual of cleaning was used to provide structure. On Saturdays, they would clean their rooms. On Sundays, they would clean the house together, often to loud music. They were taught basic skills like budgeting and meal planning — things some of the women had never learned before. For Koebel, Vesta gave her a chance to mourn her 15-year-old self.
“That was a really big thing for me,” she says, holding back tears as she recalls making arrangements for her children while she was in treatment (they stayed with their father, but she feared that she would lose custody). This time around she would face her feelings rather than run away from them.
That hard work paid off. In 2013, she worked as an educator — or Sakahàn — at the National Gallery of Canada, where she is now a curatorial assistant in charge of Indigenous programs and outreach. During a break from her gallery contracts, Koebel founded Indigenous Walks, a walking tour that focuses on the oft-overlooked Indigenous history of the capital. She is also an accomplished artist in her own right: her home is full of colourful paintings, and her kitchen table is dribbled with paint from old art projects — a hobby Koebel shares with her teenage children.
Much of her artwork, which is based on her Cree Métis heritage, is used to educate others about Métis culture. When Koebel talks of her childhood in Lac La Biche, which is located 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, she recalls sweat lodges, fasting, and feasts. Summers were spent exploring and catching bumblebees with her uncle and jumping off the big dock at the lake. These highlights are sometimes, unfortunately, overshadowed by difficult memories. Her mother once threw a ceramic fishing kit at her, smashing her cheek. Her stepfather favoured the belt.
“They weren’t like regular spankings. I would get black eyes from my mom, and then she would feel bad and not send me to school,” Koebel says.
She has created visual journals, using paintings and sketches, as well as words, as an outlet for personal pain. As she tells her story, she draws floral designs in thick black ink on miniature replica drums, materials scattered over the kitchen table.
“I tried doing darker work … things like drawing dead leaves or dead plants or something like that … but I’m just drawn to big, bright, and beautiful colours,” she says, adding that focusing on beauty in her art balances the darker sides of life.
Despite the painful memories of Lac La Biche, Koebel returns often. “Everybody knows me there,” she says, adding that sometimes people from her hometown reach out for advice in writing proposals or ask for letters of recommendation. “One of the things I like about going home is that you can see the whole town as you’re coming into it. If it’s nighttime, it’s kind of exciting. You’re home — you know that feeling,” she says, smiling.
Now sober for more than three years, these days Koebel looks to the future for herself and her children. She hopes that her children can benefit from what she has learned. Her twins turn 15 in February — the same age she was when she was raped, a fact that hasn’t escaped Koebel. Hunter and Riley show sparks of their mother’s interest in advocacy and her artistic talent and athleticism: Hunter likes to sketch and is attending Canterbury High School, while Riley is a competitive swimmer. The girls and their younger brother Jacob, who wants to be a palaeontologist, are in a dance troupe called the Prairie Fire Jiggers with their mother. Accompanied by Métis fiddle music, they combine traditional powwow dance patterns with Celtic-style dancing. They perform at cultural events and even danced at the prime minister’s swearing-in ceremony in November 2015.
Koebel makes no secret of her disturbing past to Hunter, Riley, and Jacob. But by going to Lac La Biche for a month every couple of years, they have the opportunity to see the positive aspects — boating, hunting, and berry-picking — of Aboriginal culture too.
Hunter says she feels like an advocate every day at school when classmates ask her about what it’s like to be Indigenous, especially with regard to the upcoming inquiry. “I’ve been surrounded by my culture … since before I was born. And I’ve just kind of gotten used to it. I know all the old teachings, but I know what it’s like to be Aboriginal now.” As to her mother’s advocacy, Hunter says she’s very proud of her work.
Koebel says that she believes her candid discussions with her children about her traumatic experiences, which she also shares on social media, help people see an end to their struggles. “Am I oversharing? I don’t think so. I think because I’m open with my kids, I’ve come to terms with my past.” Plus, her willingness to talk about her struggles helps others. “Now, people come to me, they confide in me.”
“It’s not conquered. I do the best I can every day. I think that people see that and just want to know how to get there,” she says. “I’m still a good person. I don’t want to be forgotten.”
A toll-free crisis call line has been set up for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Please call 1-844-413-6649 if you or someone you know needs help.