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Grief and tragedy: A Gedenkschrift for Loretta Saunders

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Loretta Saunders

A wave of grief is washing over Nova Scotia in the wake of yet another tragic murder of a young aboriginal woman. Unlike so many who have been pushed to the margins of society and fallen victim to the vultures that prey on the homeless, broken, and dispossessed, Loretta Saunders was anything but. 

A dynamic, young 26 year-old woman from an Inuit family in the Happy Valley-Goose Bay area of Labrador, she had everything going for her, and everything to look forward to in life. A student of criminology at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, she was on a roll, planning to study law at Dalhousie University and go on to a career as lawyer. With a boyfriend, and three months pregnant her personal life was also clearly on the ascendant. 

By heart-breaking and tragic coincidence, Loretta's research at Saint Mary's was on missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada, and her thesis was to have focused on the disappearance and/or death of three indigenous women in Nova Scotia. Her advisor Darryl Leroux, called her proposal:

 "… the most beautifully written and cared-for assignment I had ever read in seven years of university teaching, evaluating literally thousands of assignments."

 Leroux wrote to Saunders to tell her:

"You have the writing, researching and analytical skills of somebody who is on their way to receive a PhD. You can accomplish whatever you like academically. Our world needs more people like you Loretta; please keep reading and writing about whatever you’re most passionate about. I will do everything I can to support your efforts to become the intellectual and community leader you are meant to be."

Speak The Truth

Loretta was one the vibrant people who we look to in anticipation, excited by their potential contributions to making the world a better place. Loretta's cover photo on her Facebook page says, "Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes."

Loretta SaundersBy coincidence I met Loretta Saunders. I'm a member of the athletic complex at Saint Mary's University and go there daily to exercise and relax in the sauna. By chance I struck up a conversation with her and discovered she was studying criminology. I have a modest knowledge of forensic entomology and so we found common ground to talk about crime and its social determinants. It was a great and far-ranging conversation and I came away with a strong sense of her intellect, her passion for her studies, her sense of wanting to contribute to a better world, and her joyfulness in living. 

I would have liked to follow the arc of her life -- now I'm left to ponder her senseless death.

Nothing can ever fill that void -- no one will ever be able to give voice to the many insights that Loretta would doubtless have had in a long and productive life. However, with shaking voice, in an attempt to dispel the deafening silence, I offer a few words on how -- in her honour -- we might strive to make that better world.

Over time we will inevitably learn more about the specifics of her tragic death. What breaks the heart is that there exist people who are so morally and ethically reduced that a woman's life means no more to them than overdue rent, a car, a cell phone, or some credit cards.

What diminishes people so? Drugs? Brutal childhoods? A lack of maternal or paternal affection? No ethical role models? The specific circumstances vary from case to case. 

I'm neither sociologist, nor psychologist, nor criminologist but I observe that such dysfunctionality (whatever its proximate cause) seldom arises ex nihilo from the vacuum (there are, of course, occasionally pathological psychopaths or sociopaths who have some innate inability to feel empathy). In a general sense, poverty, dysfunctional families, inferior education, brutality in childhood, lack of social services, a dearth of community support, inferior healthcare, substance abuse, and malnutrition can all lead to a calamitous rendering of the human fabric. This is a lack of fundamental social "well-fare" -- the care and attention that makes societies and people whole and healthy. And, as a social democrat, my solution is to embrace all that which brings us together and makes us whole.

For example, Nordic societies with their social democratic values, are importantly focused on commitments and investments in the areas that ameliorate such problems -- a comprehensive social safety net and public services such as free education and universal healthcare. The results: countries with some of the highest prosperity, the least inequality, and the greatest happiness on earth.

The United Nations World Happiness Report 2013 indicates that they exhibit the highest rates of real GDP per capita, the greatest healthy life expectancy, the most perceived freedom to make life choices, and the greatest generosity and freedom from corruption. And these countries have some of the lowest crime rates in the developed world.

Loretta SaundersLoretta Saunders can never be returned to us. We will never eradicate all senseless crime. But perhaps we can do something so that fewer bright lights like Loretta are extinguished in the future. So that fewer innocent infants are distorted and disfigured through childhood passage to become morally and ethically degraded adults.

We do have the ability to make better -- and hence safer -- societies. The solution isn't necessarily to get tough on crime -- the solution is to get kind on people. We have to build a society that establishes and supports respect for life, respect for others, respect for communities, and respect for the environment at every single turn.

These few words I offer in tribute to Loretta, to a life that has been extinguished, but a bright spark that continues to burn inside everyone who knew and loved her. Let us fan the flame and make it blaze bright.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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