ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The death Tuesday of Diem Saunders, a prominent Inuk advocate for Indigenous women and rights, has left many in Atlantic Canada shocked and devastated.
Diem Saunders, formerly Delilah Saunders, was the sibling of Loretta Saunders, an Inuk woman from Labrador who was murdered in Halifax in 2014. Marie Sack first met Saunders at the 2017 community hearings for the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Membertou, Nova Scotia, where Saunders spoke openly and passionately about their murdered sibling and the need for action.
"She was strong, and a strong voice," Sack, who works with the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association, said in an interview Thursday. "It's such a tragedy for such a young woman that was so outspoken for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women. She leaves a legacy of being a strong voice for justice."
Sack said the women at her organization, and the community at large, are devastated and shocked by Saunders' death.
"We are certainly feeling the loss," Sack said, adding that Saunders was kind, empathetic and bright. "She was giving. In any way that she could help, she was always there."
On Wednesday, the RCMP said in a news release they were investigating the sudden death of a 29-year-old woman found in a home in the central Labrador town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay. The force's major crimes unit and the office of the chief medical examiner were helping with the investigation, police said.
Miriam Saunders, Diem's mother, confirmed Thursday the RCMP news release was about Diem. She said Diem had been living in Halifax but wanted to be back on the land, and had recently moved home to Labrador.
"She wanted to help people," Miriam Saunders said.
A post from July on a Facebook page belonging to Diem Saunders announced the name change from Delilah to Diem. "I am non-binary and always have been," the post said. "I embrace all of me and don't have a dead name, so address me by Delilah and I won't be upset. Ultimately, I do wish for you to respect my name, Diem."
Many women in Newfoundland and Labrador expressed their shock and grief over Diem's death on social media Thursday. Toronto-based advocate for gender justice and equity Farrah Khan also tweeted about the loss. "Rest in power Diem Saunders," Khan wrote.
In 2018, Diem Saunders' struggles with liver failure put a spotlight on an Ontario health policy requiring people to be sober for six months before they could be eligible for a liver transplant. Saunders had been denied a spot on a waiting list for a transplant, prompting support — and outrage about the policy — to pour in from across the country.
Amnesty International even issued a statement in support of Saunders' inclusion on the waiting list and praised Saunders' work advocating for the human rights of Indigenous women.
Saunders was also part of the fight against the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador and took part in hunger strikes against the massive dam and generating station. Flooding of the Muskrat Falls reservoir threatens to raise methylmercury levels in important Indigenous fishing and hunting areas.
In an email Thursday, RCMP Cpl. Jolene Garland said the investigation into the death is ongoing.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2021.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press