Searching for answers in cases of missing native women

It was just this August that the remains of Pam Napoleon were found in a burnt down trappers cabin. Napoleon was last seen on July 8, and was reported missing on July 23.

The police investigated the fire, which happened sometime on July 8 or 9, but did not find the body of Napoleon. Instead, her uncle, searching for clues as to her whereabouts, was the one to discover the body.

Napoleon was a friend of another Pam, Pam Phillips. Phillips, who works here at the newspaper, says that police told Napoleon’s family and friends that she wasn’t a priority. “How angry can I get,” says Phillips. “If she had been a white woman, they would have done everything to find her.”

Napoleon is not the first native woman to go missing. Indeed, she is one of 1700 First Nations women to go missing since 1980. Many of those women have been killed, and many of those murders remained unsolved.

Nor is she the last. On October 4, a 14-year-old First Nations girl, Madelyn Whyte, went missing from Dawson Creek.

The irony of that is not lost of Phillips, who was in Ottawa that day at the ninth annual Sisters in Spirit Vigil on the steps of Parliament.

While Whyte returned home safely, many don’t. October 4 is the day set aside “to honour the lives of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls and support the families who have been tragically touched by the loss of a loved one to violence.”

Phillips was there to support her fiancée, Jo Gunning, and his grandson, D’Andre. Gunning’s daughter Rene is one of those women who went missing. Rene spent her first five years in Tumbler Ridge, but was living in Fort St. John when she went missing in February 2005.

She was last seen with another First Nations teenager, hitchhiking back from Edmonton. Gunning was 19 at the time, and her companion, Krystle Ann Knott was only 16.

It wasn’t until May of 2011 that anything was heard of her. According to Jo, the remains of Rene were found when a man out camping wandered into the bush to relieve himself. “He smelled something, so he went to investigate,” says Jo. He came across a dead moose in the bushes. But when he turned to leave, he spotted a pair of human skulls, which the police identified as Rene and Knott.”

At the time they went missing, the case received some attention, but not a lot. “There was some investigation, but it’s nothing compared to what it should have been,” says Phillips. “They thought that these were just two runaways.”

As time went by, says Phillips, it became more and more obvious that the two women had not run away, but very little was done about it.

While the bodies of the two women have been found, their murderer hasn’t been captured. Gunning says he thinks there is a serial killer on the loose, an idea he says shared by the folks at Project KARE.

The case is one of a series of nearly 70 deaths and disappearances of women in Northern Alberta that caused the formation of the Project KARE task force. These women and teens lived a “high-risk” lifestyle. In the case of Gunning and Knott, that means that the two were hitchhiking.

“That was Rene’s downfall,” says Jo. “Hitchhiking. This wasn’t the first time she went missing. She went missing for three days down on Vancouver Island. I was down on the street talking to people and found out where she was at. When I talked to her, she showed me a little Swiss army knife. She said ‘I have this for protection.” She figured she could take care of herself.’”

But the knife did not protect her against whomever kidnapped and killed her and Knott. Jo says the reason she had left to go to Edmonton in the first place was because she didn’t feel safe at home. “She was leaving an abusive relationship, and she wanted to get out of town before he got out of camp,” says Jo. “She told us she was going, but that was the last word we ever got from her.”

“We’re fighting for a national inquiry,” says Phillips. “Why do we have to go to Ottawa for the Federal Government to see us as people? It’s still happening, these women are still going missing. Right now it’s happening, and yet it seems that nothing is being done.”

In the case of the Gunning’s disappearance, Phillips says it was a good thing that she disappeared in Alberta. “Because they were in Edmonton, there was a lot of people looking,” she says. “They even formed a task force called Project KARE. Officers in project KARE kept in contact. They even drove all the way from Edmonton to PRC to tell Jo when they found Rene’s body. But there’s not a lot of media coverage, and if it had happened in Fort St. John, it probably wouldn’t even have been mentioned.”

In 2005, the same year that Gunning went missing, the Native Women’s Association of Canada formed Sisters in Spirit, a research, education and policy initiative to research and raise awareness of the alarmingly high rates of violence against Aboriginal females in Canada. They have tracked 582 missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada. The majority of these cases are from the last ten years, but they have tracked some cases back as far as 1944. Of those, 67 percent were caused by homicide or negligence, 20 percent are still missing, and the remaining 13 percent are either regarded as suspicious by the family, or where the nature of the death or disappearance is unknown.

Aboriginal women make up three percent of the total population of Canada, but ten percent of all female homicides in Canada were Aboriginal Women. By far, the highest number of murdered or missing Aboriginal Women have occurred in Western Canada, specifically in BC, where 160 cases (28 percent of these cases have occurred. Add in Alberta’s 16 percent, and nearly half (44 percent) of these cases happened in the two westernmost provinces.

More troubling, nearly half the murder cases remain unsolved. Compare that to the national average of solved cases, at 84 percent.

And while it is true that, in most cases of murder the victim was known by the perpetrator, the percentage of offenders with no prior connection is three times higher amongst Aboriginal Women.

While BC’s most famous case of missing Women is the so called Highway of Tears from Prince George to Prince Rupert, the vast majority of murdered and missing women—80 percent—have happened in urban areas and to this day, nearly half these cases (49 percent) remain unsolved.

In the case of Rene Gunning, there are still no suspects, though the case is still open. “About a month before going to Ottawa I got a call from someone at project KARE to let me know that the case was still open,” says Jo. “I took that as a sign that I had to go to Ottawa. There’s not enough action being done when it comes to missing and murdered native women. Society at large has been like this for centuries. People just think that natives are second class. Unless it happens to be a white person, there won’t be anything done. People read the news and they might have sympathy: ‘oh, those poor people’, but until it hits close to home you have no idea. It’s been a lot of banging heads against brick walls. But it’s made me more determined to do what I can. I’m going to go back next year. I’m only one voice, but our voices together are started to be heard.”

Jo says it’s nearly impossible to describe what it has been like to live through this. “People say it gets easier over time. That’s horsesh*t,” he says. “I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve got D’Andre. It’s like I’ve still got little piece of her. He has the same quirky smile.

“As time passes, it becomes easier to accept that she’s gone, but as soon as I start talking about it, all the pain comes back. That doesn’t get easier.”