Carol Ferguson was almost two hours into a 15-hour road trip to visit her sister Roberta when she learned that Roberta was missing. Carol was travelling west and then south from her home in Fairview, Alberta, to Surrey, BC, where Roberta and their other sisters lived.
But when Carol called from the road in Dawson Creek, BC, on the morning of Friday, August 26, 1988, no one knew where Roberta was. Roberta, 19, had been camping in Cultus Lake, BC, about an hour east of Surrey, to celebrate the official end of a summer work-study program. Friends said she left camp early, planning to head home, but never made it.
An hour after making her first call, Carol stopped and called again, from a pay phone in Chetwynd. The family decided to call the police.
Three and a half hours later, Carol was in Prince George. There, she learned from her sisters that because Roberta was an adult and hadn't been missing for at least 48 hours, the police wouldn't declare her missing. This is a widely held misconception that, according to the Missing Women Working Group's 2010 report, some police might hold as well. There is no waiting period to report someone missing.
It is unclear what happened in Roberta's case. An RCMP spokesperson said last week he has the files on the investigation into Roberta's disappearance and says the case is still open. However, he said he had no plans to discuss the details of the case.
By Friday night, Carol was finally with family in Surrey. Together, the Fergusons printed out missing persons posters. They next morning they were on the road to Cultus Lake to search themselves.
Carol spent that Saturday afternoon on the phone with an RCMP officer. Today, after almost three decades, she acknowledges that some details about the case and the search are fuzzy – but she remembers that phone conversation. She remembers what she said in an attempt to persuade the officer to help the family with the physical search right then, without waiting.
"If this was your daughter, you'd do something about it right now," she told him. "This is my sister, and I know she wouldn't just up and take off like that."
Roberta Marie Ferguson had been born almost 20 years earlier, on November 19, 1968. Carol was 10 years old, and her sister Marilyn was four, when Roberta arrived. Roberta was the youngest of nine children, the baby in a tight-knit Métis family living in Grimshaw, Alberta, more than 500 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.
Roberta was a joker. She loved to approach her father, Ernie, and ask: "Hey Ernie, where's Bert?" When her sisters were sick, she nursed them to health as her alter ego Dr. Mentality. She would bring them bowls of soup, saying, "Dr. Mentality is here to get you better." She also drew and danced, and was a prolific reader of Archie comics.
Roberta was also willful, her own boss. Carol and Marilyn say this was a gift from their mother, Mary, who instilled a strong will in all her children. This was, in part, a survival mechanism. Growing up in northern Alberta in the 1960s and '70s, the children were often the targets of hatred and discrimination because of their darker skin, but their mother never simply accepted this, and neither did her kids.
"We stuck up for ourselves," Carol says. "If we had to fight, we did."
In 1983, when Roberta was just 14 years old, the girls' mother died from lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease in which a person's immune system attacks itself. For a year, Roberta—who had been quite close with her mother—lived with Carol and Marilyn in Edmonton. Then she moved with another sister to Surrey.
By the summer of 1988, she was planning to finish her Grade 12 year and to spend more time with her boyfriend. According to her sisters, the couple—together for more than a year—planned to marry.
Then, she vanished.
On Wednesday, August 24, 1988, Roberta wasn't in the mood to camp. She had a fever and her period and she wanted to go home. She told her friends she planned to take the bus. And so, less than an hour after sunset, Roberta set off, her army-green knapsack in hand. Her black hair, pulled to one side, fell just past her shoulders. She wore large, octagonal glasses. She wore stretchy black pants rolled up to the knees and a black shirt with a navy blue tank top over top. On her feet were dirty white sneakers.
According to witnesses, a woman matching this description was seen in the area, talking to a man in a red sports car. They describe the man as having light hair and a prominent jaw. But that's the last time anyone's seen—or thinks they've seen—Roberta. In the 26 years since, the mystery surrounding her disappearance has never been solved. Her family has never achieved closure.
"The thing I don't understand is why [her friends] didn't take her to the bus station," Carol says now, at home in Fairview. She has not been able to banish this question from her mind.
A fruitless search
The official RCMP search yielded many investigative files, but no Roberta. For the first few years, the family hoped she'd be found alive. Carol and Marilyn turned to psychics for help. They visited one after another, and each suggested a different area of Cultus Lake to search. One time, the family searched together; the next time, Carol went alone, driving up and down roads. Her search was cursory, she says: she didn't—and still doesn't—know the area well.
"Nothing has ever come of anything that we—you know, [the psychics have] tried," Marilyn says.
Carol was the family's primary contact with the RCMP. At first, the calls were hard. She would be anxious when an investigator called or when she herself would call, looking for updates.
Sometimes, when an unidentified female body was found, the police would call the family, or else Carol would call the police. There was never a match.
In the early 2000s, Carol and another sister provided DNA samples, in case Roberta's DNA or remains were found on the pig farm of now-convicted serial killer Robert Pickton. Pickton is currently serving a life sentence for the second-degree murder of six women. The remains or DNA of dozens of other women were found on his farm. However, neither Roberta's remains nor her DNA were found or identified on the Pickton farm.
Carol has her own suspicions. She believes a man who committed suicide in 2005—a suspected serial killer – might be responsible for Roberta's disappearance. She was, for a while, her own detective: clipping stories out of the newspaper, paying attention to people's jaw lines, searching and searching the internet. But she has no proof.
Over the years, Carol's phone calls with the authorities have petered out. She says the last time she spoke with an investigator was six years ago, in 2009. Today, her focus is on remembering Roberta as she was: "Happy-go-lucky, kindhearted, very close to her family—she loved Dad."
The sisters often see online postings about missing and murdered indigenous women, but they rarely turn to the news anymore.
"It's too depressing," Marilyn says.
Roberta is one of 225 unsolved disappearances or murders, according to an RCMP report released last year, which documents the disappearance or murder of nearly 1,200 indigenous women between 1980 and 2012. The RCMP plans to provide an update on outstanding cases this May. Carol attributes the rising number in large part to "social problems within the communities"—a reference, mainly, to the intergenerational effects of residential schools. Still, she says the police need to do a better job investigating indigenous cases.
"People have to realize that Aboriginal women are human," she says.
Neither Carol nor Marilyn wants to claim that police would have handled Roberta's disappearance differently if she'd been white. Neither sister is well-versed in police protocol or in the process that leads to investigative decisions. But the women share a single view of how police handle cases involving indigenous persons.
"They're just nonchalant," says Carol. They "just kind of dismiss."
The sisters' misgivings may not be misplaced. The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, which looked at the problems surrounding the investigations into many murders and disappearances in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, including the investigation into serial killer Robert Pickton, was instead widely regarded as an example of what not to do.
"The voices of marginalized women were shoved aside while the 'professional' opinions of police and government officials took centre stage," reads the 2012 report about the inquiry's failures by the BC Civil Liberties Association, West Coast LEAF, and Pivot Legal Society. "The focus of the inquiry was directed away from systemic issues, targeting instead individual participants in the system who may not have fulfilled their job requirements as expected."
Can education help?
A lengthy report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) a year later in 2013 also addressed problematic relations between the RCMP and indigenous people in BC, highlighting violence against women and girls by police officers. Additionally mentioned was indigenous women and girls' lack of confidence in police protection, in part because those HRW interviewed who reached out to police found themselves blamed or shamed.
Marilyn thinks repeated cultural sensitivity training, particularly geared toward Canada's growing indigenous population, would be a huge help.
"A person is a person," she says. "It doesn't matter what background you're from or what colour you are—you're a person."
Tosh Southwick, director of First Nation Initiatives and Academic and Skill Development at Yukon College, helped develop a cross-cultural training program attended by, among others, RCMP officers working in the Yukon.
It is operated by the Northern Institute of Social Justice, which opened in 2010, and was devised in collaboration with all 14 First Nations in the territory. It has offered roughly 20 sessions in the last five years.
"A big part of what we try to do… is create a safe space for people to ask those really difficult questions," Southwick says. "Those questions that give people that icky feeling where they don't know if they're being racist."
There's a two-day foundational course that covers everything from life before European settlers arrived to the Indian Act to the legacy of residential schools. There's also a one-day, in-depth course specifically about residential schools. A third course, still in development, will look at issues of governance and land claims.
Southwick says there are always a few people who leave with their minds unchanged, but many more who keep the conversation going, emailing her to ask where they can get more information, how they can fix their own preconceived notions, or how they should communicate more respectfully with elders in the communities they serve.
The course is valuable in debunking myths about residential schools, Southwick says. She says many people in "control" positions (police, health care providers, and corrections workers) don't seem to grasp the intergenerational effects of residential schools.
From the late 1800s to 1996, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were taken from their homes and subjected to emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has documented the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual losses and the effects that continue today. "Their impact has been transmitted from grandparents to parents to children," the Commission wrote in its interim report in 2012 (a final report is due this June). "This legacy from one generation to the next has contributed to social problems, poor health, and low educational success rates in Aboriginal communities today."
"Sometimes it's just lighting that spark," Southwick says of the role cultural sensitivity training plays in educating and quashing misinformation, "other times we've had the biggest, toughest RCMP officers have a complete breakdown and say, 'I am so sorry that I held these notions of your people, how do I fix this?'"
She says the course works both ways, also helping aboriginal families like the Fergusons understand more about how the RCMP works: where officers are permitted to act using their discretion, and where they are not.
Learning to let things go
There's a photo of Roberta, taken shortly before her disappearance, on Carol's kitchen fridge in Fairview. She's wearing a pale pink dress, her glasses, and a smile. Roberta's picture is the first image Carol sees when she gets ready in the morning and the last one she sees before she turns out the light at night.
Both sisters agree: after so many years of wondering, it would help to know what happened to Roberta. But over time, they've tried to focus less on the what-ifs and more on their memories.
"We've never stopped thinking about it," says Marilyn, "but the more you dwell on it, its just going to eat you up alive. You have to learn to let things go sometimes."
Anyone with information regarding Roberta's disappearance can contact police or Crimestoppers (anonymous tips) in the Lower Mainland at 669-TIPS or outside the Lower Mainland at 1-800-222 TIPS.
Follow Jane Gerster on Twitter.