Sometimes, when Malena Loonskin took her three little boys to visit her mother, she'd have fresh bruises, a black eye, or both. But when her mother, Maria Loonskin, would plead with her to come home for good, Malena would refuse.
"She must have feared a lot for her boys," Maria says now, eyes wet. She sits shoulder-to-shoulder with friends and family in the community centre of John D'or Prairie, one of three communities that comprise Little Red River Cree Nation in northern Alberta, closer to the border with the Northwest Territories than it is to Edmonton.
Malena disappeared on June 23, 2014. It was after midnight when Maria last spoke with her daughter; they chatted briefly and made plans to speak the next day. Malena was last seen leaving her house around 3 AM—a diminutive five-foot Cree woman, 26 years old, wearing jeans and an orange-and-pink t-shirt.
When Maria woke up and went online, she found her Facebook timeline flooded with the news that her one of her 12 daughters—she also has two sons—was missing. Eight days later, a member of Little Red River found Malena's remains in the woods near her house.
Jason Tallcree, Malena's common-law husband, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder and offering indignity to human remains shortly thereafter. An RCMP spokesperson would not disclose what led them to Tallcree as a suspect, saying it was part of the investigation.
Tallcree appeared in court on July 8, the same day of Malena's funeral, and her family assumed justice was on it's way to being done. On that day, hundreds of residents gathered to remember Malena. She was stubborn, outdoorsy, and always good for laugh. She loved country music and she cared deeply for her family, revelling in being a stay-at-home mom for her three boys. Mourners stood in the same field—near her house and across from the school—that searchers had used as a command post while looking for her. "A place where our journey began," read the funeral program, "and where our journey ended."
Driven to speak out
People don't usually talk about domestic violence in Little Red River. Some residents attribute this silence to fear and a lack of institutional support. Little Red River includes more than 5,000 people, but it has no women's shelter, it is served by a single psychologist who visits only once a month, and the nearest towns—Fort Vermilion and High Level—are at least an hour's drive away.
Getting mental health and addiction services is a particular struggle in rural Alberta, said Dr. Richard Starke, who led a review of rural health care ordered by the Alberta government last fall. The committee's final report was released this week and the government says its already taking action to improve access, including the development of a provincial model for EMS delivery and the creation of 10 operational districts to improve community involvement in decision making.
Dr. Starke said it's challenging, "particularly in remote areas and John D'or Prairie, of course, being in the most northerly part of the province."
"All we have is our family," says community member Darlene McLean.
This silence has consequences. According to the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, an unwillingness to identify domestic violence is one reason such violence is relatively more widespread in rural communities like Little Red River. Another is a dearth of social services including mental health resources. And there is another effect: information consolidated by the federal Department of Justice shows that aboriginal people charged with this type of violence are relatively more likely to see the charges dropped or be found not guilty, in part because the victims are reluctant to come forward.
The self-reported 2009 General Social Survey found aboriginal people were almost three times as likely to experience "violent victimization," such as sexual assault, than non-aboriginal people. They were also more likely to experience it at the hands of someone they know.
But Malena's murder had an extraordinary effect. It spurred the Loonskin family and frustrated neighbours to begin a public conversation about domestic violence. Within weeks of Malena's death, a group formed under the name Women's Advocacy for Change and began recruiting members. The group is now just shy of 800 members; McLean is one.
In Little Red River, "this is one of the first instances [of domestic violence] we've had that's had such a huge impact on the community," says McLean.
Last fall, the community organized a domestic violence walk, "in Malena's honour" and "for Chasey, Eric, and Zander," her three sons aged nine, seven, and two. Maria wears the t-shirts the group made for the walk, touching her hand to the shirt's purple ribbon, right above her heart.
Maria doesn't know what to say to her grandsons. Zander is so little; Eric always wants to visit the graveyard and bring flowers to his mother; but Chasey "never talks about his mom." Maria says: "I've never even seen him cry, he's just bottling it inside."
There's a donation box in the band office for the boys, with a photograph of Malena and their smiling faces taped to it.
"I tell them she went to heaven and I don't tell them anything else," Maria says.
In recent weeks, the Loonskin family says the community's grief has mixed with a new emotion: fear. On March 6, a friend called Maria to report that she'd seen Tallcree stepping off the Northern Express bus in High Level, Alberta, a 90-minute drive west of John D'or.
Tallcree has a criminal record. In March 2006, he pleaded guilty to pointing a firearm. Two months after that, he pleaded guilty to failing to stop a vehicle, evading an officer, driving with no insurance, and failing to hold a valid operator's license. In December 2007, he pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual assault and one count of unlawful confinement; for this, he was barred from possessing firearms for ten years and sentenced to 48 months in prison. In 2012, he pled guilty to assault and failure to comply.
The charges laid against him in connection with Malena's death had been stayed, so Tallcree had been released. "There was no reasonable likelihood of conviction," said Alberta Justice department spokesperson Michelle Davio via email. "Information from key witnesses was found to be unreliable, which further impacted the ability of the Crown to proceed."
Stayed charges can be recommenced within one year of being stayed.
Maria says no one called to notify her that Tallcree had been released and might be on his way back to his community. Her friend's courtesy call had come as a shock. She says she confirmed his release with an official days later. RCMP spokesperson Josée Valiquette says an investigator notified a family member on March 6, although she wasn't sure with whom the investigator spoke. The family denies receiving the call. Maria says she wasn't told until she called herself. Valiquette says an investigator did speak with Maria a few days later, on March 10.
Maria worried and worried. Would Tallcree return to John D'or? Would he try to take custody of two-year-old Zander, Malena's only child with Tallcree?
"I thought when he got out he would come and take [Zander] away from us," Maria says. "I was so scared."
However, within days of his release, Tallcree was arrested again. He faces charges of assault, sexual assault, unlawful confinement, uttering threats of bodily harm and three counts of breaching conditions—breaches that the Alberta justice department says are likely related to previous offences. His case has been set over until April 7; meanwhile, he remains in custody.
Tallcree's lawyer did not return repeated requests for comment.
Anger directed toward police
Tallcree is not the only focus of the Loonskin family's anger. The charges laid against him in connection with Malena's death have been stayed, and the Loonskin family blames this on a shoddy investigation.
Malena was reported missing on June 23 to the North Peace Tribal Police Service, who the family says told them they had to wait 72 hours for an investigation to begin, but that they were allowed to start a search on their own. Valiquette says the Tribal Police handled the first three days of her disappearance and the RCMP was only called in when the case was deemed a homicide investigation and no longer a missing persons investigation, as she says is standard when there is a police service with jurisdiction.
The North Peace Tribal Council says the Tribal Police, a cooperative service started two decades ago to keep local communities safe while providing culturally sensitive police services, ceased operations in January due to a staffing shortage. Its contact numbers are now out of service. On the Council's website it says "the elders saw this service as an enhancement, not a replacement" for the RCMP.
The Edmonton RCMP Major Crimes Unit officially became involved on June 26 when the case became a homicide investigation—three days after Malena went missing. But the family alleges that when the RCMP finally arrived and Malena's remains were found by a member of the public eight days after she went missing, the national police force simply took custody of her body without conducting a proper investigation.
The family says the RCMP should have been involved in Malena's case from the get-go. The family alleges the absence of both police forces, but particularly the RCMP, in the early days left the crime scene evidence to be compromised by well-meaning but untrained searchers.
Valiquette says she can't discuss the details of the investigation.
Malena's uncle, Allan Loonskin, is blunt in his assessment of the investigation: "the attitude toward the native population is that they can kill each other off and there's no money for investigations."
One of many
Malena now belongs to a group of more than 1,100 aboriginal women in Canada who have gone missing or been murdered since 1980. The number continues to grow. Across the country, Canadians have called for a national public inquiry into this issue. The government continues to say no. Malena's family and friends are now joining in this call.
Given the public conversation that developed after Malena's death, it may seem odd that the community's interest in a national public inquiry was sparked not by Malena's death, but by Tallcree's release. McLean says this reflects their initial faith in the justice system.
"He was already in prison, it seemed straightforward," she says.
"We didn't think he'd be released this early," Malena's aunt Rhonda Cardinal says. "It's not even nine months."
Maria wants a restraining order against Tallcree, and full custody of Zander. But she also wants Little Red River Cree Nation to talk about domestic violence, and for Tallcree and other violent offenders to be prohibited from living in, or even visiting, the community. Community members have recently started gathering signatures to petition Little Red River's leadership to do just that. They are nearing 1,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon. The family plans on presenting the petition to community leaders today.
"This is history for Little Red," McLean says, "This is the first time that a family has ever stepped up like this."
Right now, when you grieve in Little Red, all you have is family, friends, the relief of a smoke, and maybe the monthly visit from the psychologist. But Maria hopes for more. If the community talks about domestic violence—if it offers emotional support to victims and rids itself of offenders—then maybe witnesses will come forward, and maybe there she will get justice for Malena.
"I know I'll never see my daughter again," Maria says, "but I want him to pay for what he did to us."
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