Toronto police raised the trans flag for the first time on Monday to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance, but the force's recent handling of the disappearance of a transgender woman from the community has put a cloud over the event, critics say.
At a vigil at Barbara Hall Park in the city's Church and Wellesley neighbourhood on Sunday afternoon — a day before the international event to honour trans people who have died as a result of prejudice, discrimination and violence — friends of Alloura Wells, who vanished nearly four months ago, were critical of how police treated the initial report of her disappearance.
"We want to tell police as a community that we aren't happy how you conducted this and we want answers," said Monica Forrester.
Wells, who also goes by the names Alloura Wheeler and Alloura Hennessy, went missing in late July, but the 27-year-old wasn't reported missing to police until Nov. 5 due in part to uncorroborated information about what had happened to her.
Forrester, a program co-ordinator at Maggie's: the Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, previously told CBC Toronto she thought Wells had died from a drug overdose based on rumours that spread throughout the sex worker community. Wells and her family had recently fallen on hard times. Wells' father, Michael, said she began using drugs, became homeless and had run-ins with police.
He said they last spoke in March and he assumed she was in jail. It was only when Wells' sister, Michelle Wheeler, reached out to him with news that she wasn't behind bars, in the city morgue or at a rehab centre that he notified police.
He said the officer at 51 Division "blew it off" and he felt his oldest daughter's disappearance wasn't taken seriously.
Forrester believes police overlooked Wells' case because she is transgender, homeless and possibly a sex worker.
"We want accountability for Alloura Wells," she said while holding posters with Wells' picture on them.
Local trans community member Nicki Ward helped organize the vigil in Wells' honour and led the march to Toronto police headquarters to draw attention to the case.
"It is close knit, we keep an eye out for each other so when somebody goes missing we take it seriously. Toronto Police Service did not," said Ward.
DNA test on unidentified body
On Sunday, Toronto police told CBC Toronto that an unidentified body was found in Rosedale Ravine Lands Park in early August.
It was later determined the body was that of a transgender person. It is not clear if the remains are male or female at this time.
Const. Craig Brister, a spokesperson for Toronto police, said in an email that the body was never identified when it was initially found because DNA evidence wasn't available.
"Once the report for Wells was filed with police the testing was started," he said. "I am told the time frame was within a couple weeks. We don't have the results yet."
Both Forrester and Ward says they are waiting for the results to come back so they can get answers about Wells.
"The timing of this is doubly tragic," said Ward, referring to Transgender Day of Remembrance coinciding with the DNA test that is being run on the body.
"This is by no means the first death in our community."
In the meantime, Forrester says she will still work to get justice for Wells and others who have gone missing.
"We need to step up that game if it wasn't her because they deserve an identity," she said.