Kristen ShawandaAge 27
23 Aug 2020
Hamilton, Ontario (Canada)
Kristen was a two-spirit transgender woman whose killing was not recorded on the official TDoR 2020 memorial list released by Transgender Europe (TGEU) in November 2020.
HAMILTON – On August 23, someone killed Kristen Shawanda.
That day, Manitoulin Island and Hamilton lost a vibrant community member, a young two-spirit transgender woman who had a love for life, was a strong advocate for her friends and the causes she supported. This incident is part of a disturbing pattern of higher rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls that has been centuries in the making.
The loss is still painful two months later for the people she loved and the Island community that helped to raise her—and in some ways, whom she helped to raise.
In a small, smoky trailer home in Sheguiandah First Nation, Cheryl Sovie sits in a corner of her kitchen, holding up a posterboard of photos from her daughter’s life. Her husband stokes the woodstove as they share memories of Ms. Sovie’s daughter Kristen, naming the people in the photographs that shaped her daughter’s 27-year life. “She was very outgoing, very vocal,” says Ms. Sovie. “She had a good sense of humour and she liked other people.”
Ms. Shawanda had been living in southern Ontario for the past seven years. She studied nursing and worked in the health care field, completed academic upgrading and went back to school for business. “Whatever she could grasp at, she did, she went for. She knew she could do whatever she wanted to set her mind at. That was awesome about her,” says Ms. Sovie.
But her daughter’s existence as an Indigenous woman in Canada, especially a trans Indigenous woman, made her vulnerable to experiencing violence. Ms. Sovie says she thinks her daughter’s trans identity, more than her Indigenous heritage, is what contributed to her death.
“It’s the transgender part of it that I think about the most. Not the fact that she was Native. I find that her lifestyle had a huge impact as to why this occurred, but that’s my own thinking,” she says. “Whether it was, I don’t know. And I won’t know, I guess.”
Finding information on Ms. Shawanda’s case proved challenging, as Hamilton Police did not have a file for ‘Kristen Shawanda.’ She was born [Deadname] Shawanda on April 14, 1993 and, after moving south, got married and took on the last name Ibrahim. Her marriage later ended and she went back to using her Shawanda surname, but her legal documents still carried the name [Deadname] Ibrahim.
A Hamilton Police spokesperson referred The Expositor’s inquiry to the Office of the Chief Coroner and Forensic Pathology Service, as the coroner had taken over the investigation. Neither agency would comment on the case or the nature of the investigation but Ms. Sovie says her daughter’s death is considered a homicide at this time. There were reportedly drugs involved but the toxicology report will not be ready for three months. She had more than one sexual partner in her life and investigators believe she knew the person she was with at the time of her death, says her mother.
One of Ms. Shawanda’s family members from Sheguiandah, who has requested anonymity to ensure the conversation stays about her, says he will always remember the transformative effects Ms. Shawanda had on Sheguiandah First Nation.
“She set the stage for a lot of people in my community. She was the first person who was really open about her sexuality; she never really said it, it was just kind of known. It gave other people the opportunity to take her lead and not be scared to be open about themselves,” he says.
He holds some fear that the back-and-forth process between police and the coroner may result in a lengthy investigation with no concrete conclusions, and says he hopes they don’t write off the case without arriving at a meaningful answer.
The day after her death, he and another of Ms. Shawanda’s cousins went to the house in Hamilton where she died to perform a ceremony. They sought to send her spirit back to Manitoulin so her family could also conduct their own ceremonies at a sacred fire as she began her journey to the spirit world.