Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink was born on August 19, 1963 in Little Current, Manitoulin Island, Ontario. The second-youngest of Wilfred Laurier Cywink Sr. and Estelle McGregor’s thirteen children, she grew up in a family that deeply loved her and she, them.
The Cywink family lived near Whitefish River First Nation, located in northern Ontario. They were unable to directly reside on the reserve due to Estelle, who was Ojibway, losing her Indian status upon marrying Wilfred, whose Ojibway and Odawa mother had lost hers after marrying a Polish man. Their two-storey brick house overlooked McGregor Bay, near Manitoulin Island, with the boys sharing one room and the girls another.
Growing up, Sonya was described as being the first one to try new things and is said to have lived life to the fullest. She was known for her sense of humour and for being active, while also embodying her father’s more mellow and loving sides. Not one to like getting her siblings in trouble, she would often let others win when it came to games and competitions, and she was known for being an avid writer.
Each season brought about new activities for the Cywink family. During the summer, the kids could be found swimming and diving in McGregor Bay, playing ball on the front lawn and picking berries, while the winter saw them sledding down the hill next to the house and skating and ice fishing on the bay.
Sonya spent the majority of her early life mentoring the younger children in the community. Seen as a leader, she ran a choir at the local church and around the holidays would take the girls around the reserve to sing Christmas carols, after which she’d bring them back to the house for presents and treats.
Unfortunately, Sonya’s life took a turn around the time she became a teenager, when she experienced a trauma from which she was never fully able to recover. Then, at the age of 16, she became pregnant and dropped out of high school. Upon the baby being born, he was put up for adoption and not long after was adopted by a distant relative.
After giving birth, Sonya decided she needed a change and moved to Toronto, Ontario to be near her sister, Maggie. Maggie was happy to have her sister around, but noticed the move was a bit of an adjustment for Sonya, who wasn’t used to big city living and was dependent on her sister for support.
When she was 18, she was living with a boyfriend and found herself in an environment of frequent drug use. For more than a decade, Sonya lived a life that fell between addiction and sobriety. When she was high, she could disappear for days at a time, and when sober would return to the way her friends and family knew her: happy, loving and caring. In late 1992 or early 1993, Maggie was able to get her sister into a treatment facility located in London, Ontario, where she was finally able to get clean. This lasted approximately 10 months.
During the spring of 1994, Sonya relapsed and turned to sex work to help fund her habit. At the time, she was living in east London.
In July 1994, the Cywink family took a vacation at a lodge north of their home in Birch Island, Ontario, where they relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company. While cleaning Sonya’s room, Maggie discovered syringes and became aware of her sister’s relapse.
DISAPPEARANCE & DEATH:
Upon returning home from vacation, Maggie called Sonya, who didn’t pick up the phone, despite her sister’s numerous attempts to get a hold of her. While Maggie was worried, she told herself it was normal for Sonya to disappear for a short length of time, and tried again to call her sister that August. Sonya answered the call and the two made plans to attend a Toronto Blue Jays game to celebrate her birthday. She never made it to the game.
Worried about her sister, Maggie travelled to London and started driving around, and she soon learnt of Sonya’s sex work. On August 26, she was seen at the corner of Lyle Street and Dundas Street, located in the city’s east end, at around 2:00am. This would be the last time Sonya would be seen alive.
On August 30, a call came into the Elgin County detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police, saying that a body had been found at Southwold Earthworks in Southwold Township, a historic site that was once home to an Indigenous community in the 1500s. When officers arrived on scene, they discovered Sonya’s body, clad in only a t-shirt and socks. There were signs of blunt force trauma.
The area where Sonya’s body was found is located 65km southwest of where she was last seen in London and is about a 40-minute drive.
On September 3, 1994, Sonya’s family brought her body home, where a three-day wake was held before the burial. At the funeral, Wilfred learnt his daughter had been 24-week pregnant, information that is said to have devastated him. Post-death, the family named the unborn child Jacob, to honour the life he would have lived.
The investigation took officers to some of the roughest areas in London. However, they came upon no witnesses with credible information. It is currently unknown if Sonya’s sex work and the people she would have encountered through it played a part in her death.
In 1998, a Releasing the Spirit ceremony was held, where a Lakota medicine man gave Sonya her spirit name, Whirlwind Woman.
In 2004, investigators announced they’d gotten a break in the case and were close to solving it. However, nothing came of this and the murder remains unsolved. There have been numerous persons on interest in the case, but police have not publicly confirmed if they have a suspect, and no arrests or charges have been laid in relation to Sonya’s death.
In 2014, Maggie organized a vigil and solidarity walk, which occurred in both London and Whitefish River First Nation.
That same year, the OPP announced a $50,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case. Sonya’s family also added an additional $10,000, increasing the total to $60,000. This was done in the hopes of someone coming forward.
In February 2015, the Cywink family joined others of missing and murdered Indigenous women from across Ontario for a three-day conference in Thunder Bay.
An exhibition honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women was held by Toronto’s Ryerson University in February 2017. Titled Shades of Our Sisters, it highlighted Sonya’s case, as well as that of Patricia Carpenter, a 14-year-old mother found dead at a construction site in Toronto in 1992, whose murder remains unsolved. The exhibition celebrated both women’s memories through the use of soundscapes, documentary pieces and artifacts from their lives, shown through short films and displays.
In 2019, the OPP launched a renewed awareness campaign with the use of social media. The campaign marked 25 years since Sonya’s murder and featured the use of billboards and videos that saw interviews with the deceased’s friends and family. The two billboards that were erected – one on Horton Street and Maitland Street, and the other on Maitland Street and Dundas Street – feature Sonya’s image and a prompt for those with information to contact their local Crime Stoppers. At the launch, police shared that the believed there are people who knew Sonya who are still alive and have information that could help close the case.
On August 30, 2019, Sonya’s family, friends and community members came together at the corner of King Street and Lyle Street in London for a sacred Ojibwa fire ceremony in her honour, before participating in a solidarity walk down King Street.
Throughout the investigation, the Cywink family has kept in close contact with the OPP, especially Maggie. She has shared her frustration over the amount of times her sister’s case has changed hands.
According to the OPP, the case remains open and active, yet they remain tight-lipped about the information they currently have. They have not shared how Sonya ended up at Southwold Earthworks or if she’d been there previously, nor have they stated if the location is the site of her murder. They also haven’t publicly said who discovered her body. However, they have shared that evidence in the case gets retested as new technologies become available.
Both of Sonya’s parents are deceased, with Wilfred passing away in 2000. He often asked Maggie for updates on the investigation, and his daughter has stated that she’s sad he died without there being a resolution to the case.
Sonya’s family often wonders what she would be like if she were alive today and share the same thoughts about her unborn son.
Her sister, Anastasia, is a member of a coalition of twelve who communicate with each other about the National Inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. They advocate for a more grassroots approach, and want the government to provide more services to northern families.
Maggie was appointed Special Advisor for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General to support the family of those Indigenous women who have been murdered or are currently missing. She feels politicians should focus more on the families, rather than on promises they can’t keep, and has shared she wants the money put into these inquiries to go directly to First Nation communities. She has also stated that trauma like the one her sister suffered when she was younger is what makes Indigenous women more vulnerable targets for crime.
Maggie has worked with her local community to help boost wellness and remove the stigma around mental health and addiction.
CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:
There is currently a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for Sonya’s death.
Those with information regarding the murder of Sonya Cywink are being asked to contact Elgin County OPP at 1-888-310-1122. Tips can also be submitted anonymously through Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.
Image Credit: CBC