Last month, I was crashing on a friend's couch while driving north through Ontario to research a story about a young mother who had been murdered more than a decade ago. The friend asked why I was passing through and I told him. I was working on the latest in an ongoing series about missing and murdered Indigenous women. He mentioned seeing an earlier story in the series, "She was 16 When She Went Missing, But the RCMP Didn't Tell Anyone for Three Years."
"Makes you wonder who's missing now that we don't know about," he said.
His words have stayed with me. As a journalist, I'm not bothered by the things people don't know; I'm galvanized by them. If there's something that people don't know, reporters can ask, and learn, and report. That's our job. What really confounds me are the things that people choose not to know.
How does a journalist make people choose to know? More than 1,200 Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada in just three decades. How do you both attract and inform readers who believe that this statistic is a "native problem," when in fact it is a symptom of colonialism—which has Canadians valuing Indigenous artifacts and sacred objects (think white kids wearing headdresses), but not Indigenous people or their way of life?
Searchers: Drag the Red
Back in January, when I began researching this series, my friend Adam Dietrich was reporting for a small weekly paper in northern Alberta. He began to flip me copies of RCMP press releases about missing Indigenous persons in the region. On average, he says he received one a week.
Adam had become frustrated by what he perceived to be racial bias in the media coverage of the region's missing. He felt certain that the disappearance of a white person would be front page news for the local weekly, while that of an Indigenous person would be relegated to the back pages, and might not even merit a photo.
His beliefs were not without evidence. The summer before, Adam had written a story about a 26-year-old Cree woman named Malena Loonskin who'd gone missing and then been found murdered. Malena's common-law husband was charged with the crime (the charges have since been stayed). Due to editorial constraints, his piece was essentially a rewrite of the RCMP's press release on the subject, and his primary source was the officer who wrote it. Adam told me it was the biggest news story that week, yet it ran on page 10. There was no photo of Malena.
More than a year later, Malena's murder still nags at Adam, and there's one aspect of the story that particularly nags at me. Malena's family says that 72 hours passed before police came to help them search for their loved one. Did that affect the quality of evidence gathered? Does that explain why the charges were stayed? Malena's family wonders, and so do I.
If there's a single thread that binds the stories in my series together, it's the attitude of the police and the judiciary toward Canada's Indigenous people. Occasionally, I'm able to report Indigenous amazement and gratitude for an investigation managed sensitively and competently, but usually, my stories report the pain and frustration caused by racist remarks, offensive assumptions, and legal standards that seem arbitrary at best, unjust at worst.
I've met people who say: Not all cops. Not all men. People who blame the Indigenous woman who was being beaten by her husband, because she went back to him before he ultimately killed her. People who, when confronted with the story of the RCMP officer who brought an Indigenous woman home from jail to "pursue a personal relationship," mention the video of the officer dancing at a powwow. People who say: They balance out somehow, right?
A few weeks ago, I visited with a mother whose daughter was murdered, whose case was botched repeatedly. She was furious, her eyes wet with tears, but she told me vehemently that before her daughter's case she believed in the police, she trusted them. Experience has destroyed that trust.
When I think about the RCMP, inevitably I think about Krystle Knott, born 26 years ago.
If Krystle had enjoyed the opportunity to translate her childhood ambitions into adult passions, she might now be a veterinarian or a mechanic. She might still listen to Shania Twain. (She'd probably be as stubborn and willful as ever.) But her family will never know. Krystle was killed, together with 19-year-old Rene Gunning; the girls' remains were found in 2011. Who killed the two young women? That's just one more thing Krystle's family would like to know.
My first call to the police about Krystle was to an RCMP spokeswoman in Edmonton. I wanted to know why Krystle had been missing for three years before the RCMP said a single public word about her. I also wanted to explore the perception that her aunt, Doris Goulet, has of the case (which, to this day, remains unsolved): "It's like: they're found, they're buried, so it's done."
I asked the spokeswoman: Could you talk about that? Could you tell me about the procedures for staying in touch with families when cases drag on for years? Could you tell me how the RCMP tries to assure victims' families that it's still investigating?
For the second time in two months (the month before, I'd called about Malena's story), the spokeswoman was incredulous that it was a journalist calling, rather than the family itself. If the family has a problem with the investigation, she suggested, the family should call.
Krystle's cousin, Wendy Goulet, knows why the family might not call.
If Wendy could rewind the clock, she would plaster Edmonton and northern Alberta with photos of her young, missing cousin, and she wouldn't wait to do it. She would go with her aunt Doris to the police station. Together, they would demand that Krystle's face be broadcast on the news, without delay.
If Wendy could rewind the clock, would it save Krystle and Rene? She doesn't know. She'll never know. What she does know is the feeling of three years of public silence in a missing-persons case. And she knows what it feels like to read a RCMP release that suggests a loved one's disappearance, while inexplicably failing to identify that person as anything more than "another female":
"[Rene] is believed to have left back to the Fort St. John area in the company of another female from Dawson Creek. The pair were thought to be hitchhiking for transportation."
When the police don't tell people someone's missing, Wendy told me later, "it changes your way of thinking. You know she's missing. [...] You can't do anything about it."
At this point, you may object: Not all police or Well, that's just one person's story. If so, I urge you to read the detailed and horrific report by Human Rights Watch: "Canada: Abusive Policing, Neglect Along 'Highway of Tears.'"
On the phone with the RCMP spokeswoman, I forged ahead with my questions about Krystle. Most of them she couldn't, or wouldn't, answer.
"I wouldn't be able to speak to an ongoing investigation in specific details," she said at first.
Later she told me, "I don't have that information and we wouldn't be, I wouldn't be, providing that information."
It took a call to the Edmonton Police, another to the British Columbia RCMP, and another to the national RCMP before I got someone on the phone who would say more than Sorry, no. But even these answers—from a different spokeswoman with the Alberta RCMP, one who had been directed to return my call by the force's national officers—were vague. My attempts to gain answers through the
Access to Information system have been shut down lest the public knowing why Krystle's disappearance wasn't publicized interfere with the hunt for her killer.
Sadly, the RCMP's insistence on secrecy is not limited to Krystle's case. I've spent much of the past nine months posing variations of these questions in respect of several different Indigenous women who disappeared or were murdered. These women died or disappeared in different ways, in different places—but the police response is always fundamentally the same: the investigation is ongoing, and we need privacy in order to bring it to a successful resolution.
But only one case, that of Denise Bourdeau, abused and then killed by her common-law spouse, has been brought to a successful resolution. And having spent so much time in the homes of families desperate for any scrap of information—no matter how grim—about the fate of their loved ones, I have to believe that there must be a better way. The police must find a way to protect the integrity of its investigations, while at the same time ensuring that families awaiting news do not wind up feeling abandoned by the very system designed to protect and serve them.
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