MEMBERTOU, N.S. - The 78-year-old Mi'kmaq elder cradles the grainy photo of his lost daughter laminated on his smart phone — a reminder of his hope to find her one day.
It's black and white, but Virginia Sue Pictou's brown eyes sparkle, and her father Robert James Pictou has added the lines, "Forever in my heart." He keeps a full-sized version propped up at breakfast each morning.
The Nova Scotia-born Pictou was brought to a medical centre in Bangor, Maine, by police after being beaten on April 24, 1993.
But as doctors briefly turned their attention to a shooting victim in the trauma unit, she quietly left, never to be seen again, family members say.
"To me, as a father, every time the subject comes up, it's just like it happened yesterday. It's all there," the father said during an interview while attending the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls in Cape Breton.
"How is she going to rest in peace, could somebody explain that to me?"
The family testified at the hearings at Membertou First Nation on Wednesday morning, repeating their account of how they suspect Virginia died violently, and talking of their hope state police will one day locate her remains and make arrests.
Virginia had seven small children at her home in Easton, Maine, two of whom perished in a 1990 fire.
Francis Pictou, 52, testified Wednesday he's convinced Virginia left the hospital to return home to be with her five remaining children because she didn't wish to leave them with her violent husband.
Agnes Gould, the oldest sister, testified that Virginia repeatedly experienced domestic violence and had frequently come to her seeking shelter.
Robert John Pictou, a 54-year-brother, told the commission he'd read a police record describing her beating by her husband and brother-in-law on a main street of Bangor on the day she went to the hospital.
Like other families who've spoken before the inquiry during its cross-country hearings, the siblings say they're determined to continue their search for information on her case.
"We followed every lead we could. We searched fields. We searched swamps. We talked to family. We did investigations, we hired private investigators. It's gone nowhere," said Robert John Pictou.
Searches undertaken by Aboriginal families that go on for decades — sometimes across borders — have been a frequent theme at the inquiry as it has crossed the country.
On Wednesday, the inquiry's commissioners said 900 people have registered to tell their story, and signalled they will be asking Ottawa for an extension and more money to hear the cases.
Gould said she'd like others to hear and be inspired by their resolution during the 24-year quest.
"As we always say, our case is one in a thousand," she said during the inquiry.
As the family spoke, the commissioners released an interim report that called for the provinces, territories and federal government to create a national police task force to handle requests from families and survivors to reopen cases and review investigations.
Commissioner Michele Audette said she has repeatedly heard of cases where police forces are failing to adequately respond to cases that have involved missing or murdered aboriginal women.
A spokesman for the Maine State Police didn't respond to an emailed request for comment in the Pictou case.
However, Robert John Pictou said that the investigation is one among 50 on a cold-case list, and added that a victim's advocate from Maine is in contact with the family.
The brother said having a joint national task force in Canada would be welcomed by his family, as it might be able to work with American agencies in cases of Aboriginal victims.
"As it stands right now, we have zero information on our missing sister. That unfortunately is not unusual," he said.
The history of murdered and missing Mi'kmaq women in the United States goes back for generations, as Mi'kmaq and Maliseet band members cross for work, marriage and family ties.
One of the cases that led to the push for the national inquiry was the 1974 death of Aboriginal activist Anna Mae Aquash, a Mi'kmaq from Nova Scotia.
She was killed during a period of protests by the American Indian Movement and prosecutors allege she was murdered on orders from AIM, because the group believed she was an FBI informant.
Her family struggled for years to have investigations re-opened, and to have her body repatriated and buried in her home community.
Francis Pictou said for siblings and parents, the lost women are never forgotten and simply recovering their body and bringing it home would be a source of closure.
"We know in our hearts, we know she's gone," he told the inquiry.
"Even if it feels like an endless lead, go after it," he said. "You might regret it later that you didn't go after that one possibility."
Follow (at)mtuttoncporg on Twitter.