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At night, Janet Lowther thinks of her sister, Amanda Bartlett. She can’t help it — as children, the two shared a bedroom. Lowther says being the younger sibling was both a blessing and a curse; her sister liked to play tricks on her.
“I remember getting ready for bed,” Lowther said.
“She would start shaking and rolling her eyes around, or sometimes she would flip her eyelids over and that totally grossed me out.”
Lowther laughs, only it echoes sadness.
She hasn’t seen Bartlett in more than 18 years; that’s one year longer than the time her sister lived before she went missing.
She says the only place her sister was lost before she disappeared was in a book.
“There is no other way to describe Amanda but as unique and creative ... loved to read, she would for hours on end. She was naive and gullible for love,” she said.
Bartlett was a Pimicikamak band member, but she lived on Opaskwayak Cree Nation near The Pas, Man. most of her life. She was seen for the last time in July 1996 by her uncle, Joseph Halcrow, who she called Smokey, near Selkirk Avenue and Salter Street in Winnipeg’s North End.
At 17, she was on the run from a Child and Family Services group home.
According to Smokey, Bartlett said she was alone in the city. He offered to let her stay with him, but she never made it there.
“My mom didn’t get any phone call or any visit from a social worker,” Lowther said.
Weeks later, a letter arrived in the mail, stating Bartlett left the group home. According to Lowther, the letter said because Bartlett was 17, Child and Family Services had no obligation to follow her after she took off.
According to the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS), Bartlett’s disappearance was first reported in February 2008.
But family members say they tried several times to report her missing since 1996, only to be turned away.
Lowther remembers what a Winnipeg police officer said to her on one occasion:
“I’m sorry, Janet. We don’t do family reunions.”
Lowther was sent from The Pas, Man. RCMP to the WPS, over to Winnipeg’s RCMP detachment and back again to where she started.
“When I got upset or frustrated it seemed as though they would use that against me in order not to help,” she said.
Ultimately, she found what she was looking for where she never expected to see it: Television.
In 2007, Lowther was flipping through channels when she saw a documentary called Stolen Sisters. When the film ended, there was a toll-free phone number to Amnesty International, a global movement devoted to human rights. They connected her to ChildFind Canada.
“That helped me to put my foot in the door with the RCMP,” she said.
Lowther was finally able to report her sister’s disappearance to the WPS in February 2008.
Four years later, Project Devote, a task force for missing and murdered cases in Manitoba, took on Bartlett’s case.
Family members struggle to accept how difficult it was to report a missing loved one to authorities, and have the case taken seriously.
For Lowther, a federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous girls and women would mean a chance to investigate discrepancies in Bartlett’s case, and those that exist in the cases of others.
Meanwhile, Lowther wonders what happened to her sister.
“She never applied for a SIN number, driver’s licence, status or social assistance. Amanda’s MB health card is still being sent to my mom’s mailing address, which shows me that she never changed her address,” she said.
“Amanda vanished into thin air. She was here, and now she is gone.”
CBC News continues to investigate missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, looking at the unsolved cases and telling the stories of the families and communities.