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Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women seek change ahead of Oct. 4 vigils

VANCOUVER — Tatyanna Harrison’s 21st birthday would have been on Sept. 29. Her mother described Tatyanna, whose body was found in Vancouver earlier this year, as a courageous woman with the gift of gab and a deep love for learning.
Natasha Harrison, second right, is comforted during a vigil for her daughter Tatyanna Harrison, 20, and for Noelle O'Soup, 13, and Chelsea Poorman, 24, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Family members of Indigenous women killed across B.C. say there needs to be more accountability and improved communication between police jurisdictions during investigations of missing people. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER — Tatyanna Harrison’s 21st birthday would have been on Sept. 29.

Her mother described Tatyanna, whose body was found in Vancouver earlier this year, as a courageous woman with the gift of gab and a deep love for learning.

“It affected (Tatyanna) deeply to witness anything that was unfair or cruel. She wasn't afraid to use her voice to speak on it and this has always been the core of who she was,” Natasha Harrison said.

“I know in my heart she wouldn't be OK with the injustice surrounding her passing.”

Harrison is part of a group of family members of Indigenous women killed across B.C. calling for more police accountability and improved communication when investigating missing person cases across jurisdictions.

The families spoke out Monday on the eve of Canada-wide Sisters in Spirit vigils Oct. 4 to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Tatyanna's body was found in Richmond in May but was not identified by police in Vancouver — where a missing persons report had been filed — for months. Police say she died from a fentanyl overdose before she was reported missing.

Harrison said there needs to be an open network between police departments across the country to share information when vulnerable people go missing.

“They always constantly pass the buck. I would like to see when a missing person (case) is filed it is open to all jurisdiction and it's not singled out to Surrey handling the case or Richmond handling the case,” she said of the separate police departments in Metro Vancouver. 

She said communication with law enforcement has "come to a halt," which makes her believe no resources are being put into her daughter's case. 

"Due to the lack of resources, you have put me in a position to investigate my own daughter's disappearance, creating unnecessary trauma and suffering for not only me but all those who are helping along the way," she said.

Sheila Poorman thinks the Vancouver Police Department was too slow to put out a public call for help when her daughter, Chelsea, went missing.The 24-year-old woman's bodyfound outside an abandoned house in Vancouver 20 months after she was last seen.

In the first week of the search, Poorman canvassed the streets herself with a photo of her daughter looking for information.

"I made posters to put up on social media. I did what I could but felt defeated and alone looking for her," she said.

In a statement, Vancouver police Sgt. Steve Addison said factors including someone's state of mind have to be considered before police make a public appeal for information about a missing person. 

He said police have worked "closely and collaboratively" with the families of the two women to investigate the circumstances of their disappearances.

Over the past 10 years, the department has only one unsolved case involving a missing Indigenous woman, he said.

Josie August said family members also resorted to handing out missing posters on their own when her relative Noelle O’Soup, 13, went missing in Coquitlam in 2021. Her body was discovered earlier this year inside a Downtown Eastside rooming house. 

The tenant of the room where O'Soup was found, Van Chung Pham, was found dead in February but officers initially missed the remains of O'Soup and another woman who was also in the room.

August questions how that's possible. The delay in finding O'Soup's body means the family has many questions that might never be answered, she said.

Pham had a lengthy criminal record and was wanted Canada-wide in connection with a sex crimes investigation by Vancouver police.

Addison said the apartment where O'Soup was found was occupied by an extreme hoarder. Police could not legally search the unit at the time of Pham’s death and there is no likelihood that anyone could have discovered O'Soup's remains, he said.

O'Soup's death is an ongoing criminal investigation and police have met with her biological parents, he said.

Following the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, a final report had hundreds of recommendations including a call for police to improve communication with families.

Annual Sisters in Spirit vigils are planned in cities across Canada including Ottawa; Gatineau, Que.; Whitehorse; Edmonton; and Nanaimo, B.C. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2022.

Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press