It wasn’t talked about.
There was pain, the family grieved, life moved on.
Lesa Semmler left her eight-year-old self behind. She comes from a family of outspoken leaders and grew up to become one herself, speaking out about violence against women.
One thing she never did was talk about her mother’s murder — until now.
The Inuvialuit mother will be one of the first to publicly testify when the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls hearings begin in Yellowknife Tuesday.
“Until the inquiry came up, I never really thought about what happened because I never really wanted anybody to feel sorry for me,” she said.
On Jan. 11, 1985 Joyce Semmler was shot by her common-law husband, Peter Emile, in Fort Smith, N.W.T. She was 25. He then turned the gun on himself, but survived to serve prison time for her murder.
Lesa was living in Fort Smith with her mother at the time.
“It still hurts everyday when we think about it, especially this time of the year,” she said, with tears in her eyes.
Her mother was studying to become a social worker.
According to court documents, on the day before her murder, Joyce Semmler filed a complaint with the RCMP against Emile. He was charged with assault.
Lesa said she and her mom were planning to leave town the day she died.
“She would pick up our things and then she’d pick me up from school, and then we would leave on the plane,” she said, adding she’s still unclear as to why her mom returned to the house alone that day.
“She probably felt that [the assault] had already happened, so she could go back and he wasn’t going to do anything. I don’t know if she didn’t ask for help or if there would have been help provided to her, or an escort to go back to the house.”
Although she holds no resentment toward Emile now, Lesa still questions why the murder happened.
“I know that he’s out and he’s free and he’s living, and my children don’t have a grandmother,” she said.
Emile was convicted of second degree murder in 1986 and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole eligibility for 10 years.
‘I just want everyone to be talking about this’
Suddenly motherless, Lesa went back to Inuvik, where she was raised by her great-grandparents Agnes and Slim Semmler.
“Even though my mom was gone, I was lucky that I had them. I didn’t end up like some kids in foster care, or living in a different community,” said Lesa.
“They raised me to know that education is important, and having respect and being out on the land is important.”
Lesa grew up to become a leader in her own right, working for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation and chairing the Inuvik District Education Authority.
She took comfort in making change happen. She raised a daughter. But she never forgot about the abusive relationships she witnessed as a child.
“It wasn’t only in my house,” said Lesa.
“I’d seen it in other houses … so you start to look at it like it’s just a normal thing that happens in some houses. It’s always been such a taboo. You don’t talk about it. It’s not your problem.”
If we don’t talk about it, she says now, we’re never going to stop it.
When Lesa shares her story at the inquiry, she’ll be doing it in front of family members who have been supporting her over the years, including her teenage daughter.
“Having a 13-year-old daughter, I think, is one of the things that triggered me advocating and becoming so passionate about this violence against women,” she said.
“I just want everyone to be talking about this.”
There’s another reason.
“I feel like I have to support this inquiry because I feel like my mother didn’t die for nothing, you know?” she said.
“Maybe she died because 33 years later, that I could be fighting for these things to be put in place so these things don’t happen.”
Lesa is also a part of the National Family Advisory Circle, which gives recommendations to the inquiry. She was part of the Inuit contingent of the organization, which was responsible for the inquiry coming to Inuvik and Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.
Lesa is quick to point out the inquiry is not just looking into Indigenous woman who have been missing and murdered.
“They are also looking into victims of violence and they want people to come forward if they are a survivor of violence,” she said.
“If they can understand what they were going through, maybe they can make recommendations in almost a preventative way to prevent the murder of somebody going missing.”
The inquiry’s opening ceremonies will begin Monday evening at the Chateau Nova hotel in Yellowknife, and the community hearings will run Tuesday to Thursday.
Although Lesa admits “every time I talk about [the murder], I cry,” she says sharing her story has become easier each time.
“If we can get our story in from our region into the inquiry, there might be some recommendations that are specific to our region that might help prevent or support people that are going through this,” she said.