Inside Grande Prairie: Horror and Hope in Canada’s Violent Crime Capital
Grande Prairie, Alberta is one of the most dangerous places to live in Canada, especially for Indigenous women. This is how the community is responding to one woman's murder.
When Courtney Johnstone went missing, Walter White learned about it the same way almost everyone else did—from the news. He listened to the police announcement of Courtney's disappearance and he continued to follow the news of their investigation. He heard when the police, looking for her body, sifted through trash at the landfill in Grande Prairie, Alberta—a city with the dubious distinction of being the violent crime capital of Canada.
White, who is Métis-Cree, had never met Courtney, and yet, on a February day in 2014, something compelled him to show up unannounced at the landfill to ask investigators a favor: when they found Courtney's remains, could he please say a prayer, sing a song, help guide her to a better place?
"I couldn't imagine her spirit staying in that spot," White told VICE recently. "That unimaginable thought of a human being being treated in that manner, it was just appalling... She needed that dignity, that release, that compassion."
Courtney's remains were found on February 15, 2014, a little over two weeks after she was last seen. White was allowed to say his prayers and to guide her somewhere better; an RCMP investigator sat at his side as they released Courtney's spirit from the landfill.
In the almost two years since that day, White has become one of Courtney's surprise advocates. While Courtney's mother grieves in private, White is rallying the community, lest Courtney's killing go unnoticed by the media and the country at large.
"The system's broken," White says. And while he looks forward to what a national inquiry can address, he is adamant that "it does start at home."
Before Delaine was Delaine Lambert-English, she was Delaine Lambert, a Métis-Cree girl. She remembers a day in Grade 4 when she was walking down the hall of her primary school, near Beaver First Nation in northern Alberta to meet with her first-grade reading buddy—her younger cousin and occasional playmate April Lambert.
It was a special day. The teacher had given the senior students disposable cameras. They were having a reading buddy photo shoot. Click. Someone snapped a photo of the cousins. Two girls, each with the same thick fringe of dark brown bangs, the same child's half-smile—April in her cousin's lap and Lambert-English with her hand resting comfortably on April's shoulder.
It's the only photo Lambert-English has of herself with April.
At the age of 12, April disappeared. It was late August 1998. She'd been walking home along the highway in the early hours of the morning, presumably making her way back to High Level from a house party on the Bushe River reserve. Nobody saw her again.
It was more than a month before any of her remains were found and later still when a local mechanic—a 35-year-old divorced father of two with a criminal record whose past victims were invariably women—was arrested, charged, and convicted.
Lambert-English was a teenager by then. She remembers the grief counselors who came to all the schools in the neighboring communities. She remembers the anger and the confusion.
As an adult, Lambert-English moved south to Grande Prairie. She started working at the Friendship Centre, coordinating its youth program. That's where she met Jackie Benning. Benning, born and raised in Grande Prairie, is white. Like most Canadians, she had little awareness of Indigenous issues in Canada until her first Sisters in Spirit walk.
"I don't think a lot of people that aren't touched by this topic personally understand the history in Canada that's leading to it and the systemic racism and violence that our country has that continues to perpetuate this problem," she says. But she, at least, has learned.
Together, Lambert-English and Benning started HugASister, an awareness and advocacy group for missing and murdered Indigenous women. They organize gatherings in support of communities in need, run youth conferences, and give classroom presentations.
Some of their most difficult work is trying to reach the next generation, trying to help undo decades of destructive government assimilation policies, including residential schools, in trying to help them recognize the trickle-down effect of such sustained abuse.
"It's about how to deal with mistreatment when it is occurring," Benning says, but "it's really about healthy relationships... and valuing yourself and valuing other people's lives."
Decades before White went to the landfill for Courtney, he spent his early boyhood days roaming Enoch Cree Nation's Alberta fields with his grandfather, hunting and learning about traditional medicines. When he was five, his parents split up and White moved south to Calgary. Big city, big school, big culture shock.
For many years, White says, he was "that stereotype." He was sexually abused by a residential school survivor as a child, left home at 14, and was mixed up in crime, drugs, and gangs for more than a decade. At 26, White cleaned up. He walked the Red Road to sobriety, the holistic path reconnecting him with culture and traditions of his community. It enabled him to see more clearly how history, alcoholism, and the vulnerability of indigenous women intersect.
"The available information suggests a devastating link between the large numbers of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and the many harmful background factors in their lives," reads the first volume of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report.
"Overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in child-welfare care; domestic and sexual violence; racism, poverty, and poor educational and health opportunities in Aboriginal communities... inadequate supports for Aboriginal people in cities. This complex interplay of factors—many of which are part of the legacy of residential school—needs to be examined."
More than 1,200 indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing since 1980, according to the RCMP. As the father of a young Indigenous woman, White says the statistics terrify him.
He's still not entirely sure what drew him to Courtney.
Five days before Courtney's remains were found, Shane Babitsch was arrested for her murder. Courtney's mother Lenora, who is still grieving, receives updates on Babitsch's court case from White. It's too hard to talk right now, she says. But Lenora wants people to know about her girl: "she was a loving mother and a beautiful daughter."
Courtney had four children, who were no longer in her care at the time of her death. She was dependent on drugs, and in 2013 pleaded guilty to a charge of possession of a controlled substance.
Courtney worked in the sex trade. On January 27, 2014—barely a week after serving 15 days in jail for obstructing a peace officer—she received a text from Babitsch, who was then 21 years old. Babitsch had fired off this text to several sex workers in the area—but Courtney was the first to respond.
Babitsch wanted to know the price of a rape fantasy scene. He wanted to use a ball gag and handcuffs that he'd bought online months earlier.
He and Courtney settled on an amount.
Courtney took precautions. A friend dropped her off at Babitsch's apartment and watched a man matching Babitsch's appearance let her in. Courtney had her phone with her, and it was agreed that she would call her friend when she was done, to get a lift. But she never made the call.
According to an agreed statement of facts, Babitsch wanted Courtney "to make things more realistic, as if he was really raping her." He put his hands around her neck, and misinterpreted her resistance as making "things more realistic." He choked her to death. Then he panicked and threw her body in the dumpster—but he kept the money he was going to pay her, as well as the gift cards she'd had on her when she arrived.
Again from the statement of facts: Babitsch should have known the "objectively foreseeable risk of harm." And again: at some point, Courtney, who weighed less than 150 pounds, stopped responding—but Babitsch, who weighed roughly 240 pounds, did not stop choking her until after he had ejaculated.
White didn't have any plans to stay involved in Courtney's story after her remains were found and the traditional ceremony was performed. And yet, as the months wore on and Babitsch's case wound its way through the courts, White followed the news. He observed Babitsch's court appearances via closed circuit television, the pre-trial conference, the appearance to set the date for Babitsch's preliminary inquiry, and then—in October 2014—his release on bail despite the first-degree murder charge. This was an unwelcome shock for the community, but not an unprecedented legal decision.
When Babitsch's preliminary inquiry began in February 2015, White decided to observe in person. Later, at the beginning of April, HugASister joined people across the country in rallying for Cindy Gladue—an Indigenous woman whose case horrified Canada, not only because of the not guilty verdict in the trial of the man acquitted of killing her, but also because her preserved pelvis had been used as evidence.
Afterwards, White reached out to Lambert-English, Benning, and HugASister because he wanted a presence at the courts for Courtney. He wanted Courtney's family to know it had the support of the community, and he wanted the courts to know that their decisions would not go unnoticed.
Lambert-English asked him to reach out to Courtney's mother. It took White just a few phone calls.
"Well," he says, explaining how he found a woman he'd never met and whose name he did not even know, "this land is big, the Indigenous community is very broad, but it's very small."
He explained to Lenora who he was, what he'd done, how this wasn't a job to him, that there was no ulterior motive. Now HugASister planned another rally—this one for Courtney, on April 20, the day of Babitsch's arraignment, after the February preliminary inquiry deemed there was enough evidence to try him.
As White recalls, Lenora seemed shocked and honored "that the community would come together for her daughter... just the sheer magnitude of that love for another human being that you don't know."
At the April 20 rally, elders offered prayers and teachings on the traditional role of men. People sang songs and told stories, and a few—including White and Lambert-English—sat side-by-side on courtroom benches. Their presence was never meant to disrupt the court proceedings, it was meant to show the justice system they were watching.
In Grande Prairie, crime levels have increased in almost every category, according to an RCMP PowerPoint presentation given in November. The city's crime severity index has risen 33 percent in the last five years, while in the same period it has fallen by 12 percent in Alberta and by 19 percent in Canada. The most recent measurement of the crime severity index, in 2014, was more than double the national level.
The RCMP's short-term strategy is to focus on drugs, then guns and gangs, then robberies. The Mounties are working to schedule more overtime "to calm public anxiety."
But Canada's criminal justice system should be "the last place that deals with what's really wrong with society," says Andreas Tomaszewski, an associate professor in the Department of Justice Studies at Mount Royal University in Alberta.
Tomaszewski is particularly troubled by cases like Courtney's, where attention is placed on her "high-risk lifestyle" as if that somehow makes her responsible for her own death.
"It's very problematic that this impression is being given by people who actually work for the criminal justice system," he says, "that when certain people are victimized they are less important and less worthy of our efforts to assist them."
So Lambert-English and White sat in court because it's important.
"Right now it feels like our women are seen as second class," says Lambert-English. "This is happening to our women because we're not seen."
Heather Kazonay remembers standing at a board covered in missing-persons posters. The ones for the white people, she recalls, were crisp and new, as if someone had recently swapped out the old ones to make sure the dates, photos, and phone numbers were all up-to-date. The ones for the Indigenous girls, she says, seemed dated: crinkled, a little ripped at the corners.
She thinks about April Lambert, her little sister.
"Enough time has passed for me to be able to talk about it," she says, but there are some thoughts that are particularly cutting even after 17 years. Kazonay never saw her sister–younger by a mere 18 months—graduate from high school. Kazonay's four kids—three boys and a girl—will "never have the privilege of calling [April] auntie."
Kazonay and April were close growing up. Both were sexually abused as children, and they ran away together. They quickly learned to look out for each other, and if one was having a bad day then the other would be quick to try and cheer her up.
Heather thinks of Robert McKenzie, a mechanic who was sentenced to 18-and-a-half years, 16 with credit for time served pre-trial.
"It's unfair for him to be moving on with his life," Heather says, "He took my whole life away from me, my sister."
Nobody ever found out how April died. McKenzie maintained he accidentally backed over her in his van and then panicked. Then—and this part is not in dispute—he burned her body, twice, before throwing her remains off a bridge into a river.
"The grotesque and extreme measures he took... compels the view that he did so to prevent the discovery of some very serious harm he inflicted upon the 12-year-old girl," wrote the judge in his decision. "It is my opinion that the accused must be fixed with serious responsibility... for the cold-blooded and calculated manner in which he disposed of her body."
Kazonay, who participates in High Level's annual Sisters in Spirit walk, is thankful at least to have answers about April. It's a strange sort of gratitude. She thinks of the many families that don't know what happened to their loved ones, that don't receive regular updates from the police. She's adamant that there's at least one task the police can do better: they can call to provide regular updates, even if the update is that there is no update.
That last night in August 1998, right before the early morning when April disappeared, Kazonay remembers seeing April in front of a bank with some friends. They were both going out with different groups that night.
They leaned in and hugged. They didn't usually hug.
"I love you," April said uncharacteristically.
"I love you," Kazonay returned.
The dockets at the Grande Prairie courthouse are stacks of paper so thick that a single name is easily swallowed up. In September, more than a week before Babitsch was scheduled to appear in court, a local reporter noted one of Babitsch's relatives in the building. He circled back to the dockets and scanned until he found Babitsch's name. He called his editors to tell him of the courts' change of plan.
On that day, Babitsch pled guilty to manslaughter and interfering with human remains. Months later, he is still due to be sentenced.
White, who released Courtney's spirit, who kept her mother updated on the court appearances, and who showed up in court for her, once again found out the same way everyone else did: when the reporter's story went online. Their rally for Courtney, planned to coincide with Babitsch's original court date and to be one day after the annual Sisters in Spirit walks, was canceled.
The courts don't have to notify the public of scheduling changes—but to White and to those who had taken time to make sure Courtney was not forgotten, it felt sneaky. He thinks of how dozens of people showed up for Courtney. He thinks of the reporter, who could have easily missed Babitsch's name on the docket had he not glimpsed one of Babitsch's relatives in the building. Who would have known then?
White thinks, too, about the young woman—a mother of two—who was shot in the head by her partner, Christopher Bergeson, in her kitchen, in front of her children. This happened in Sexsmith, a 20-minute drive north of Grande Prairie, just months before Courtney died. It was an accident, Christopher said—a joke. He didn't think the shotgun was loaded.
A week before Babitsch pleaded guilty to manslaughter, Bergeson was found guilty of manslaughter. The woman and her children's names are protected by the courts.
"The value of the native women out there is that much less in the courts," White says in frustration.
It isn't just the courts, says Jenn Baird, who has run HIV North's Sex Trade Women's Drop-In for more than three years. Her work focuses on supporting vulnerable women in Grande Prairie. Bergeson's partner was among the women Baird supported.
She agrees with White and Lambert-English's comments about being seen. "That's exactly what it is. Indigenous women are seen as less than."
According to Baird, the support for women in Grande Prairie—especially those who are Indigenous, and especially those who are involved in sex work—isn't there.
"There is a lot more support for women who can afford the support, that can take time off to go and get support," she says. "Like a white person."
Two months ago, HIV North requested the city's permission to turn its office into a community outreach facility. This was denied.
Local business owners were concerned about criminality. "I don't think you can separate the uses from the users," the local paper quoted one business owner as saying at the public meeting.
Another accused the city of using the area as a "dumping ground for drug addicts and people that don't fit in anywhere."
That type of comment is ignorant of the multitude of factors involved in providing help for people who are struggling, says Tomaszewski. Reaching out for help is often acknowledged as a huge step, he says, but that help has to be obtainable for it to work.
"We actually do have the infrastructure in most places," Tomaszewski says, "but we need to provide enough funding for those resources to make sure that A, the resources are there and B, that the target population is aware of the resources and C, that the resources are offered in such a way, culturally sensitive... that those who need them are actually willing to accept help."
White is frustrated, but optimistic.
"We're very fortunate that we're such a resilient people," he says, "our people are standing up."
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