In highly emotional and personal testimonies, female relatives of five Indigenous women whose lives were taken, launched question after question after question about the handling of the case files by RCMP and municipal police forces in British Columbia. The most pressing question was, ‘Why aren’t Indigenous women valued?’
“I hope we can reach a point in our justice system where cases like these get solved instead of brushed under the rug because one person decides a human being doesn’t deserve a proper investigation,” said Natasha Harrison during a Zoom conference hosted by Amnesty International Oct. 3.
“We need to end the careless disregard of human life based on race, stigma and class. All humans deserve justice, and we need to do better as a society,” Harrison said.
Her daughter Tatyanna Harrison, 20, was reported missing May 3, 2022. The day before the missing report was filed with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), the remains of an unidentified woman were found on a 40-foot yacht that was dry-docked in a marina in Richmond, B.C. It would take until Aug. 5 for the VPD to inform Harrison that those remains were her daughter’s.
Harrison was joined by Brenda Wilson, Sheila Poorman, Josie August, Bridget Tolley and Neskonlith Indian Band Kupki7 Judy Wilson, who also serves as secretary-treasurer for the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.
Brenda Wilson lost her sister Ramona Wilson, 16, in 1994 in Smithers, northern BC. Ramona was the youngest child in a family of six and was Brenda’s only sister. Their house was full of laughter, said Brenda, “and when Ramona went missing, that laughter disappeared.”
The teenager was reported missing to the Smithers RCMP on June 12, 1994. Ramona’s body was found in a wooded area near the Smithers’ airport on April 9, 1995.
“For the last 28 years we have been trying to find answers in what happened to her, who did this to her, who murdered her,” said Brenda.
And the sobering reality is, she said, nothing has changed in 28 years. Ramona was one of many, many Indigenous women and girls linked to tragedies along Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert, dubbed the Highway of Tears.
“It’s just so disheartening when you think after all these years of being an advocate for MMIW (missing and murdered Indigenous women) that things would have changed with the process of assisting the cases of our Indigenous women and girls. But as we see today…nothing has changed,” said Brenda. “And when are we going to have answers? When is there going to be accountability?”
Noelle O’Soup, 13, went missing from a group home in Port Coquitlam. Her body, along with that of a woman, was found a year later in the Vancouver apartment of drug dealer Van Chung Pham. Two months previously the VPD had been in that apartment and had recovered Pham’s dead body. O’Soup’s body was there at that time, but missed by the police.
As far as the Coquitlam RCMP were concerned, said relative Josie August, Noelle was “just another missing Indigenous teen.”
Sheila Poorman’s daughter, Chelsea Poorman, 24, was reported missing Sept. 7, 2020. Her body was discovered outside an empty mansion in a rich Vancouver neighbourhood on April 22, 2022. The VPD said she likely died on or near the property the night she went missing. Poorman wants to see a bylaw put in place to have abandoned homes searched within 24 hours to 48 hours of a person being reported missing.
Along with sharing grief over the loss of loved ones, the women also shared the treatment they received from the police forces.
They were not taken seriously when they reported the disappearances, and the posting of their loved ones as missing was delayed from eight days, in the case of Noelle, to 21 days in the case of Tatyanna.
“My oldest daughter…was told (by VPD) that they had, more or less, that they had other important matters to tend to. She was so upset hearing that. No one deserves to be treated as though their missing loved one wasn’t that important or didn’t matter,” said Sheila.
Chelsea had mental health issues and Noelle had multiple disabilities, yet their missing persons’ reports were not prioritized and no Amber Alert was issued in the case of Noelle.
Family members organized their own searches in the absence of police support.
“We had 10 months of searching for Ramona. And there was nothing in place for MMIW. There was no assistance in any way. Nobody had any idea on what to do or where we could turn to,” said Brenda.
Many families travelled from their home communities to where their loved ones went missing and spent months searching. They pounded the streets and highways. They handed out posters. They did radio, television and newspaper interviews. They posted on social media.
Families continue to demand answers from the respective police forces.
Bridget Tolley is hopeful those answers will come, and that other families, like hers did earlier this year, will find some justice.
It took Bridget 20 years to get some relief after her mother, Gladys Tolley, 61, was hit and killed in October 2001 near her home of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation by a Sûreté du Québec police cruiser that was operating outside of provincial police jurisdiction.
Bridget said the investigation into her mother’s death was poorly undertaken and cleared the police officer involved almost immediately.
The private apology she and her family received in April from Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière, the Public Safety ministry and the Sûreté have helped her in her healing journey, said Bridget. Yet, she admitted, she still holds anger.
“We demand more and better from our government, our politicians, police, and the justice system. We will not sit quietly while other policies…degrade our power, mishandle our cases and blame us when we know the real problem is the systemic injustice that is rooted in colonization,” said Bridget.
Despite all the reports and action plans designed to address the issue, said Judy Wilson, “genocide of women, girls and two-spirit continues with the travesty of justice…(and) the intensification of violence against women.”
Judy is also intimately familiar with this violence as her sister was murdered at a very young age.
Today, Oct. 4, marks Sisters in Spirit Day, in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people across Canada.
“So many grandmothers today (are) raising the children of our loved ones that went missing. And we have so many nieces and nephews missing their aunties. They only know them through the pictures that they see and the vigils that we do and they learn about them and that they get to know who they are only by their posters,” said Brenda Wilson.