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Inside One Family’s Bureaucratic Struggle to Find Out if Their Missing Daughter Is Still Alive

Canadian regulations around government records for Status Indians makes it impossible for even investigators to access basic clues to her whereabouts.

by Jane Gerster
22 December 2015, 11:00am

A photo of Roxanne hugging her nephew. All photos courtesy of Roxanne's family unless otherwise noted

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.

More than once, Angeline Courtorielle has thought about impersonating her granddaughter, Roxanne Marie Isadore. But each time, she reconsiders. She imagines calling Health Canada or the band office: "Hey, can you tell me where my medical was last used?" And they'd probably ask her why—if she's actually who she says she is—doesn't she know the answer herself? And what would Angeline say then?

So, she's never tried.

"I got scared," she says. "You know what I mean? So I didn't."

But Angeline is convinced that information will give her closure. She's convinced it will help to answer the question her family has asked over and over for years, relentlessly but without resolution: Is Roxanne alive, or is she dead?

Alive, Angeline thinks. Alive, she hopes.

Angeline is 70 years old. She and her husband are raising five kids—not her own—on nothing more than their old age pensions. They live in Fairview, Alberta. She has five of her own children, 24 grandchildren, and 35 great grandchildren, the youngest barely a month old. Her "babies" remind her that she's old, but they keep her feeling young.

"If I don't see her with a baby in her arms," says Dorothy Blue, Angeline's daughter and Roxanne's mother, "it's not her."

Roxanne was one of Angeline's babies. She was born October 14, 1982—a Libra—in High Prairie, Alberta. Dorothy was 17 and already a mother to her eldest, her two-year-old daughter Nikki. "We're more like sisters," Dorothy says, speaking of her daughter. "I was a child myself."

Dorothy with her three daughters, Nikki (left), Rollanda (middle), and Roxanne (right).

When you're a teenager, it's hard enough to be a student, let alone a student who's a mother of two. Angeline visited from Chetwynd often. During these visits, toddler Roxanne would crawl up beneath her grandmother's shirt and settle in.

Eventually, Angeline took her home to northern British Columbia. She nicknamed her "my skin." Roxanne kept crawling up under her grandmother's shirt.

"She would roll up like a fetus," Angeline says, "like she was in the womb."

Safe.

***

The drawings, papers, and certificates that mark the passage of childhood fill Angeline's drawers. Over decades of raising her children, then her grandchildren, and now her great-grandchildren, she's kept them all.

She has many drawings from Roxanne because Roxanne liked to draw. She also liked to play. "She was," Angeline says, "a really lovable kid."

When she was five years old, Roxanne began waking up screaming from nightmares. She would be frantic if the light was off and the bedroom dark and shadowy. Angeline slept in the same bed with her to chase away the bad dreams, to soothe her.

"It was a guy with a beard, a guy with a beard," Angeline would hear Roxanne say, over and over when she woke. She didn't know what to do. It was the first time Angeline realized someone in her family had been abused. Angeline brought Roxanne to native counseling. For a while, they had to go every other day just to cope.

This—the revelation that her sweet girl had been molested—gutted Angeline.

"I collapsed for three days," Angeline says of the initial confirmation in counseling. A guy with a beard, a guy with a beard. Roxanne is one of the 25 to 50 percent of indigenous women in Canada who are sexually abused as children, per data compiled by the Canadian Department of Justice. For non-Indigenous women living in Canada, that range is just 20 to 25 percent.

Roxanne would go on to be "a joyful little girl," Angeline says, her eyes on the kitchen table, now littered with family photos: Newborn Roxanne in her mossbag. Roxanne, almost four, wearing a fancy dress and with matching pale blue beads looped around her neck. Roxanne hoisting, and in the next photo hugging, her younger cousin. Roxanne in her white graduation gown, blue cap atop her head.

But despite the joy, the dark shadows remained.

"I don't think they outgrow it," Angeline says. "They take it with them."

***

A photo of Roxanne, undated, as a teenager.

The family last saw Roxanne in 2006, and the last they heard from her was a 2007 phone call. That was the year Edmonton Police picked Roxanne up on charges relating to prostitution (she pled guilty, and some of the charges were later dropped). Until that time, according to her family, Roxanne had been calling weekly—or at least monthly. After that, the calls stopped.

At the time, Roxanne was 24. Her daughter Gail was four years old, her son Connor a toddler, and her youngest son C.J. just a baby. Angeline didn't even see Roxanne after C.J. was born. Roxanne called from Edmonton to say he was born and in care and Angeline went to fight for custody (she was given it).

After being molested as a child and abused repeatedly by her longtime boyfriend over the years leading up to her disappearance—Dorothy recounts once finding her daughter, cowering in a closet and several other instances where she was beaten so badly she required hospitalization—Roxanne struggled with men and boys.

"She didn't like... I don't know how to put this," Angeline says, wearily but without judgement, "she might have loved her sons in a way, but she didn't want to see them because they were boys."

The trauma is part of why Roxanne's family thinks she could be alive, somewhere. But where, and what happened between her last phone call in 2007 and 2013 is mostly a mystery.

Angeline says she was told the RCMP picked up Roxanne sometime in 2011 on a prostitution charge in Fort St John. The photo of Roxanne shared widely on the news is from that incident, Angeline says, and is the last picture she has of her granddaughter. However, an RCMP spokeswoman says that never happened. The courts have no record of any charges stemming from it. It's another mystery Angeline is trying to unravel.

The family's only reassurance that Roxanne was somewhere alive and OK came from vague updates from friends and family who called and professed to have seen her.

After 2013, even these reports ceased. That's when Roxanne's family really started to worry. On September 24, 2013, they reported her missing to their local RCMP detachment in Valleyview. Roughly a month later, the Edmonton Police became involved and they have since become lead on the case.

As of this writing, there is nothing new for the police to report. Roxanne could be anywhere. Roxanne could be dead. To know, one way or another: that's why Angeline sometimes holds the phone and imagines being Roxanne.

***

Roxanne is Cree from Driftpile Cree Nation, which runs along the shore of Lesser Slave Lake several hours north of Edmonton. She has Indian Status, a government designation under the Indian Act, which is rooted in assimilation and has been likened to apartheid law.

Roxanne's Status is proving problematic for the investigation into her disappearance. Because she has Status, the responsibility for providing some of her health benefits and maintaining some of her medical records lies with the federal government (as it does for eligible Inuit people as well). As a result, it's much more difficult for investigators to access those records.

This means that Roxanne's family hasn't been able to use health records to track her down the same way any other Albertan family could track a missing member. They haven't been able to see when or where—or even whether—she's accessed her medical benefits or filled a prescription at a pharmacy or gotten her teeth cleaned, a cavity filled.

"If she's alive, she'll use it," Angeline says. "If she didn't use it—well, she's gone."

***

Angeline points at the picture of Roxanne's first Christmas visit to Santa. Photo by Adam Dietrich

In 2011, Alberta passed the Missing Persons Act. Some welcomed it for the new tools it offers investigators working on missing-persons cases, but others criticized it, concerned about how those tools might be abused.

The Act allows police to apply to the courts for an order giving them access to phone and text records, video records, GPS tracking, health, financial, and other information. For police to apply, they must have already conducted "reasonable efforts" to find the person missing and they must be concerned about that person's "safety and welfare... given the individual's physical or mental capabilities or the circumstances surrounding the individual's absence."

One mother, whose son has been missing for years and whose attempts to gain access to his records through the courts were unsuccessful, welcomed the news. "Maybe it doesn't pertain to us," Melanie Alix told the Edmonton Journal in 2011, "but it might pertain to the next person and it might be crucial to save somebody's life."

Versions of the Act now exist in British Columbia, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia.

With respect to the health care records available now per the Alberta Missing Persons Act, Edmonton Police spokeswoman Patrycia Thenu said, "the [Edmonton Police Service] typically utilizes the Missing Persons Act to obtain information."

With respect to Roxanne, Thenu said, "a check was done with Alberta Health Services in 2013."

Roxanne's sister Rollanda Thomas (left), grandmother Angeline Courtorielle (center), and mother Dorothy Blue (right) around Rollanda's table and photos of Roxanne in Valleyview, Alberta. Photo by Adam Dietrich

But Roxanne's basic medical coverage—including drug prescriptions she might fill or refill—isn't provincial; it's federal. Like nearly 97,000 of the more than 116,000 First Nations people living in Alberta, per a 2011 Statistics Canada report, she has Status, so those records are maintained by Health Canada.

A spokeswoman for the RCMP—which has since relinquished control of Roxanne's case, but which has assisted the Edmonton Police by sharing Roxanne's missing-person bulletin—said via email, "it is standard practice for investigators to look into any data source that may help them [...] which in some cases involves request for judicial authorization to get access to information related to missing person's use of government services."

But federal information, said Thenu, "is not easily accessible as it doesn't fall under our authority." So the Edmonton Police haven't checked Roxanne's records nationally, meaning they haven't tried to access Health Canada records, meaning they don't know when and where Roxanne has used her medical benefits—or if she even has.

According to Thenu, the provincial Missing Persons Act, which came into effect in September 2012, is beneficial because it requires a court order, but not a warrant. But it doesn't provide a means for accessing the federally-held medical records of Roxanne and other missing Indigenous women who rely on the federal government, not just the provincial government, for medical coverage.

Angeline sits at her granddaughter's kitchen table and looks at photos of her other granddaughter, Roxanne, who has been missing for years. Photo by Adam Dietrich

Police could file for a criminal search warrant for those records, Thenu said, but they would need information "suggesting an individual's disappearance is criminal." Without such information, "It can be difficult to obtain a search warrant."

But to not even try? Jo-Anne Fiske finds that reasoning problematic. She's a professor in women and gender studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta and has spoken out before about the Missing Persons Act, particularly in how it could exclude indigenous women. In 2011, she criticized its emphasis on assets—such as phones and bank accounts—that many marginalized women, like Roxanne, may not have.

"Listen," says Fiske now, "She hasn't been seen in eight years; why would you not think something had gone wrong?"

***

If you're an adult, you're allowed to choose to vanish. Some do. They leave to escape abuse; they leave to fight addiction and mental health issues; they leave because they're being crushed by financial debts or family struggles.

The difficulty is in determining whether someone has disappeared of his or her own volition, or whether something awful has happened. But jurisdiction issues can keep families like Roxanne's from using some of the tools that might provide answers.

It's unclear exactly how many of the hundreds of missing Indigenous women across Canada have Status or are Inuit. A national spokesman said the RCMP did not break down "Aboriginal" into First Nations (Status or not), Métis, or Inuit while compiling data for its 2014 report on the epidemic.

Where applicable, families can put in requests to obtain the health benefits information, said a spokeswoman for Health Canada. The department will then review the case "against the requirements of the Privacy Act" and make its decision. It's unclear if this happened in Roxanne's case.

Police are also able to make requests, the spokeswoman said. These, too, are weighed against the Privacy Act. But "this information is not easily accessible," the Edmonton Police spokeswoman said, "as it doesn't fall under our authority."

Such justifications are maddening, says Dawn Lavell Harvard, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada. "We constantly hear, again and again, from various police forces and various agencies, 'well we can't do that because it's not our jurisdiction,' 'it's a jurisdictional issue,' and girls are going missing, girls are gone forever while people argue that it's too difficult because of jurisdiction."

Angeline says she was advised by someone within the federal government—she is uncertain whether it was Health Canada or the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs—to get a lawyer and fight for the information in court.

This is exactly what Melanie Alix told the Edmonton Journal she did years earlier, albeit at a provincial level. She was unsuccessful.

There's another, more fundamental impediment to this plan. A family raising five kids on two old-age pensions, with aunts chipping in when they're able? "We can't financially," Dorothy says.

Roxanne at her high school graduation

There needs to be a workaround, says Lavell Harvard, some piece of legislation that would allow police to check that information without having to prove the disappearance was criminal to obtain a search warrant.

"They're missing... how does one prove criminality if they're gone?"

Jo-Anne Fiske notes that talking about privacy and police investigations has never been a conversation Canadians are particularly adept at having.

"There is always that apprehension of state surveillance, but I also think that that can then be used—this whole question of privacy—it can be used as an excuse for any number of things that are going on in the sites of power that are not in citizens' best interests."

For Roxanne's family, it boils down to eight years with no word.

They continue to reach out to her. They set up a Facebook group to search for her. There, someone routinely posts this message: Please come home, kookum's number hasn't changed, please let us know you're all right.

But the last time Roxanne called Angeline's number was when her youngest was six months old, Dorothy says, and "C.J.'s nine now."

It's about closure now, says Rollanda.

"We want to know: is she alive? Or did she pass on?"

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