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All Her Life Chantelle Bushie Found Ways to Disappear Until One Day She Never Came Back

She was sexually abused. She lost a younger sister to a tragic accident. Did the system ever give her a chance?

by Jane Gerster
Jul 14 2015, 6:10pm

Chantelle Bushie, the year before she went missing. Photo courtesy Vivian Bushie

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Vivian Bushie watches calmly as eight-year-old Fahtima bounces between her zebra-printed bedroom and the big armchair in the living room of the family's small apartment in Grande Prairie, Alberta. Fahtima can't find the rainbow loom toy she needs to make charms for a bracelet. Despite the girl's constant barrage of questions, Vivian Bushie remains patient. After all, though she is not Fahtima's birth mother, she is the only mother Fahtima has ever known.

Check your dresser. Not there. Check the rainbow cupboards. Not there. Check where you keep the blank paper and the coloring sheets. OK. Off her child goes.

Sometimes Vivian looks at Fahtima and sees Chantelle, Vivian's eldest daughter and Fahtima's mother. When Fahtima is speaking in earnest, she'll tilt her head to the side dramatically as if to convey the importance of what she's about to tell you. In these moments, she's sassy in a way that Chantelle was too.

Fahtima knows that Vivian didn't give birth to her. She knows who Chantelle is, and she knows that Chantelle has been missing since she was only a few months old. But that's about the extent of what Fahtima knows about her birth mother.

"Whenever she asks questions I'll try to answer them," Vivian says. She finds the questions about what Chantelle is like easier to field than the ones about where Chantelle is and what happened to her. Mostly, though, she focuses on making sure her precocious little girl grows up happy, healthy, and safe, and knowing she's loved very, very much.

Chantelle Alice Rose Bushie was born on April 2, 1991 in Grande Prairie, Alberta, just north of Edmonton. She's from the Dene Tha' First Nation to the north, her childhood spent in a number of northern Alberta places, including Meander River, one of three Dene Tha' communities.

Grande Prairie, AB. Photo by Adam Dietrich

Chantelle was the second of four kids born to Vivian, a single mother. She gave her first child up for adoption, then came Chantelle. In quick succession, she was followed by her brother and sister.

Chantelle's was not an easy childhood, says Vivian. Chantelle was sexually abused as a teenager—an experience that is deplorably common among Aboriginal women and girls, particularly among those who, like Chantelle, live in northern Canada. Research compiled by the Canadian Department of Justice indicates that 25 to 50 percent of Aboriginal women suffer sexual abuse during their childhood. For non-Aboriginal women, the range is 20 to 25 percent.

When Chantelle was 11, her younger sister Summer died in an accident. Summer, Vivian's youngest, was on a wagon ride at a community event. Summer fell from the wagon and landed under its wheel. Vivian wasn't there, but Chantelle and her brother were. They watched it happen.

A year later, Vivian picked up her family and moved south for good to Grande Prairie, a growing but resource-dependent city of nearly 50,000 people. She enrolled in the local college in the Teacher Education North program. The degree would have enabled her to serve as an Indigenous teacher in rural, northern schools that work primarily with Indigenous students. But after one year, she dropped out.

"It was stressful with two of my kids with me," Vivian says. She was studying and working and raising a family, and in the summer months, her educational funding was cut off.

She felt exhausted, but she didn't share her struggles with the kids. "I was just trying to provide for them," she says. She didn't want them to worry about the family making rent.

View from the road in Grande Prairie. Photo by Adam Dietrich

It was there, in Grande Prairie, that Vivian's relationship with Chantelle fell apart. It started with the usual pre-teen angst. By the time Chantelle was 14, she was cutting class. She got caught up with a bad crowd, Vivian says, and skipping quickly escalated to disappearing—sometimes for a day or two, sometimes for longer.

"I don't know how many times I reported her missing," Vivian says, "and the police would catch her, find her, and then they would drive her back home."

There's a limit to what the police can do when they get calls from parents like Vivian. According to RCMP inspector Gibson Glavin, if a kid gets caught up in the wrong crowd, officers will "try [to] locate this person," and they'll try to "assess what their needs are." The officer can provide advice—and can, if the person is under 18, as Chantelle was, decide whether to involve social services or another "supporting agency."

Chantelle wasn't a criminal. On the street, she sometimes went by the alias Kim Star, and she was known to police as someone who hung around with sex workers and drug dealers—but she herself was neither. As Vivian recalls, whenever police officers picked up Chantelle and brought her home, she would inevitably take off again. According to the RCMP, by the time Chantelle vanished, she was "known to be homeless" and "known to lead a high-risk lifestyle." But to Vivian, she was just missing.

"I stopped asking for the system's help," Vivian said. It didn't seem like there was anyone in the city who could help her to help Chantelle.

There was a brief period of support, Vivian says, when Chantelle was pregnant at the age of 15. And when baby Fahtima was just two weeks old, in April 2007, Vivian remembers a support worker from Child Protective Services helping Vivian file for custody. But by Christmas, Chantelle was gone, only 16 years old, 5'4", and 120 pounds, with the initials "VT" tattooed on her left arm. Her parent's initials.

Chantelle. Photo courtesy Vivian Bushie

At the time, Chantelle's disappearance didn't seem unusual. Not until September 2009—almost two years later with no contact—when Vivian was unable to verify that her eldest child was in Vancouver, did she report Chantelle as a missing person.

Vivian left the search to the RCMP. She found it easier to cope by imagining that Chantelle wasn't missing, that she was safe and happy.

In 2008, the year after Chantelle disappeared and the year before she was reported missing, Statistics Canada ranked Grande Prairie 26 in Canada for overall crime based on police-reported statistics for communities with a population of over 10,000. That number has risen steadily over the years, climbing to 11 for overall crime in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available.

An RCMP officer blamed the latest ranking on the city's young demographics and its drug trade. But the year of Chantelle's disappearance, the Alberta Crime Reduction and Safe Communities Task Force released a report that pinpointed resource-based places like Grande Prairie as the areas where homelessness and affordable housing were most severely impacting residents' safety and security.

HIV North is a non-profit organization that works with people with HIV/AIDS and with people at risk, like Chantelle. At its Grande Prairie chapter, there's a women's drop-in that a female RCMP officer visits, usually twice a week. The point is to build relationships, says Sue Belcourt, the organization's executive director—but many of the agency's clients "don't want that interaction" and when they need help "are afraid to call the RCMP."

Accordingly, support for the people who are uncomfortable interacting with the RCMP is often left entirely to organizations like HIV North. The threshold for accessing the organization's harm-reduction program is low, but as team lead Jared Gossen acknowledges, "If someone is recently homeless or on the street, it's not super likely that we are going to see them for the first six months, eight months, maybe even a year."

By the time HIV North starts to work with teenagers, Gossen says, those teenagers are often already "significantly disengaged" from their parents and often more "comfortable in their own skin."

"There seems to be a large gap in services," says Melissa Byers, an outreach worker with HIV North, and she says violence seems to be getting worse. The people HIV North helps speak frequently of a rise in drugs, guns, and gangs.

"The potential for violence that is there for youth is quite significant right now," Belcourt says. Many of the people who are living on the street are indigenous youth.

The question is how to fill the gaps; how to minimize the risk of violence. "I don't think more police are necessarily the answer," Belcourt says. "I think our community needs to take its head out of the sand and realize it's got a problem and start talking about the problems."

Sometimes, Gossen says—even when the necessary services exist—it's a challenge to convince teenagers like Chantelle that they need help. They're usually "unaware of the downward cycle whether it's economic or their drug use," he says. Parties can help them "cope with the rougher parts of getting by, which I think makes them extremely vulnerable to people who would take advantage."

Photo of Chantelle courtesy Vivian Bushie

So, if vulnerable people haven't figured out how to access the support that does exist, and they don't feel comfortable calling the police, where do they go? Who helps them?

Vivian confronted this question once before, with Chantelle. Now she's facing it again, with her son.

Chantelle's brother struggles with alcoholism and drugs, Vivian says. She regards it as a coping mechanism for the loss of his younger sister and the disappearance of his older sister. This type of alcoholism has been well documented, most recently by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the summary of its final report on Canada's residential school system.

According to the summary report, released in early June, "First Nations people were six times more likely than the general population to suffer alcohol-related deaths."

Chantelle's brother has been in and out of jail. Alcoholism, jail time, and childhood abuse are hardly uncommon among Canada's indigenous populations. But Vivian doesn't know how to help.

Howard Sapers has been the Correctional Investigator for Canada for more than a decade. He wrote his first annual report in 2003-04. Ten years later, in his annual report for 2013-14, he wrote of the problems facing aboriginal offenders: "To a great extent, these issues remain with us a decade removed from my initial observations."

Aboriginal people are overrepresented in Canada's penal system. From 2005 to when the latest available annual report was published, the percentage of Canadians under federal sentence increased 17.5 percent. During the same interval, the percentage of aboriginal inmates increased 47.4 percent. Today, Aboriginal people comprise only four percent of the total population, but represent more than 20 percent of incarcerated Canadians.

Sapers's report finds that aboriginal offenders, relative to non-aboriginal offenders, are, on average, all of the following: less educated; more likely to be young; more likely to have a history of substance abuse, mental health, and/or addiction; more likely to be kept in a higher-security facility; and less likely to be released at the two-thirds point of their sentences.

"There is both engagement in and concern about how to best address the disproportionate rates of crime, victimization, and incarceration among Canada's aboriginal peoples," Sapers wrote. He also expressed concern with "the lack of responsiveness to my reports."

When Vivian thinks about what someone could do right now to help her, she doesn't think of her missing daughter; she thinks of her son. "He needs help," she says. After a pause, she says again: "My son needs help."

Vivian doesn't let anyone who's been drinking come around Fahtima, not even her son. He knows that. She keeps her eyes fixed on the growing girl, "I make sure she's with me all the time." She rarely goes back to Meander River—usually just for funerals—and she goes to church for support, relying on her pastor and his wife.

According to Vivian, there should be more support for high-risk teens and for their parents. She'd like to attend a group—maybe even help to create one—but she works a relentless schedule and doesn't think she'd be able to find the time. She was offered counseling in Meander River, but she was never able to get to it.

Glavin says Chantelle's case is currently an active investigation and that the investigator in charge meets regularly with a representative from the Canadian Centre for Child Protection to discuss Chantelle and other files.

On June 19, the RCMP released an update focused on the epidemic of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

"The RCMP remains committed to solving these cases, and bringing closure and justice to the families who have also been victimized," it says. It highlighted a national missing persons strategy initiated last fall that seeks to establish "mandatory communication schedules with families."

The original review found that nearly 1,200 aboriginal women went missing or were murdered between 1980 and 2012. The update revealed that 11 more women had been reported missing in 2013 and 2014, while 32 more were murdered.

Vivian is slowly building up a network of support, reaching out over social media to other Indigenous mothers who have also lost their daughters. She's learning that it is not only her daughter who is missing and not only her son who is fighting alcoholism while struggling to remain outside the penal system.

Last fall, Vivian and Fahtima participated in the Sisters in Spirit walk. Vivian later read a friend's post about the more than 1,200 Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered since 1980—Chantelle included—and she wonders why the federal government has yet to announce a national inquiry.

"I still pray that she'll somehow come home or that I'll know she's OK," Vivian says of her daughter. "I hear so much of women missing, especially when they say that they found human remains. It just scares me."

Anyone who has seen Chantelle is asked to contact Grande Prairie RCMP at 780-830-5701 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or to email the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains at canadasmissing-disparuscanada@rcmp-grc.gc.ca

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