British Columbia

RCMP's attempt to shut down abduction rumours was 'a missed opportunity,' says women's advocate

Women’s advocates in British Columbia say they’re concerned by the RCMP’s attempt to shut down alarming rumours around recent disappearances in southern B.C., saying women have good reason to trust social media mobilization over police to keep them safe.

Rumour 'speaks to a level of fear' women feel every day, advocate says

Angela Marie MacDougall, the executive director of Battered Women's Support Services, said the RCMP missed the mark by dismissing women's fears after a number of disappearances in southern B.C. (CBC)

Women's advocates in British Columbia say they're concerned by the RCMP's attempt to shut down alarming rumours around recent disappearances in southern B.C., saying women have good reason to trust social media mobilization over police to keep them safe and their fear should not be dismissed.

Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women's Support Services, said the rumours, however unsubstantiated, point to the larger issue of sexual violence in the community, women's reasonable fear and long-standing distrust of the police. 

"There are cases of missing women. The police are investigating. If somebody's wondering about that and having their own theories about that, that's something that I think is reasonable, but also it speaks to a level of fear that we know that many women and girls and people of marginalized genders are navigating every day," said MacDougall.

"This is actually really important … that someone spoke about their fear."

Videos — some of which now have more than half a million views — began circulating on social media in earnest over the weekend in response to the recent disappearances of women from southern B.C. 

The disappearances of Trina Hunt, 48, in Port Moody and Shaelene Keeler Bell, 23, in Chilliwack have garnered particular attention.

Police have released minimal information about each case.

One TikTok post from a woman in Metro Vancouver suggests, without evidence, that human traffickers or a serial killer could be to blame for the women's disappearances.

Police said they have no evidence to support the theory in the video, which has garnered more than 600,000 views.

RCMP's response 'dismissive,' woman says

Nikki Radusin, who shared several videos on Instagram and Twitter, said the RCMP were wrong to ask people to stop spreading the clips, and pointed out women's long history of struggling to be believed by police when it comes to claims of sexual violence.

"They may not necessarily be connected ... but I don't think it's fair to be so dismissive of it and say people are fear-mongering," said Radusin, who lives in North Vancouver.

"We're living in a time where a lot of women are isolated and they're alone … And if there's something happening, whether or not [the cases are] connected, we should be aware. And that's what the women of social media are doing.

"Historically, police don't really take women's issues seriously and this is just being dismissive and flippant."

Radusin, who heard about separate disappearances first on Twitter before finding the TikTok videos, said she doesn't think sharing the videos would hinder any police investigation unless people started making false reports. 

Coquitlam RCMP said in its statement Saturday that police have received one official report around an alleged abduction in the Tri-Cities area and have seen a number of posts circulating online.

RCMP asked people to stop sharing the "rumours" and asked anyone concerned about their safety to be aware of their surroundings.

In the statement, Cpl. Michael McLaughlin said although police have "an open mind," there is no evidence showing an abduction happened.

"We've seen people drawing connections between situations and investigations that are completely unrelated and encouraging each other to carry weapons as a result," the officer added.

"Please don't carry weapons, and don't try to draw conclusions about crimes based on very basic information."

RCMP 'absolutely regret' language used

On Sunday, RCMP acknowledged referring to the concerns in the videos as rumours may have left some people feeling dismissed.

In a statement on Monday, RCMP reiterated there is no indication people are being abducted or that there has been an increase in reported cases. They said there is nothing to indicate any links between the recent missing persons cases.

Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet said the intent was to alleviate some of the "social media frenzy."

"We absolutely regret that we used language that may have been offensive to some people or may have been perceived as dismissive," she said. 

Shoihet said it is the primary goal of police to ensure public safety for everyone, but that is "imperative" that victims of crime call police instead of going to social media. 

She said it is upsetting to her to hear that some women avoid doing this because they feel their concerns won't be taken seriously. 

Every report is taken seriously, she said. 

"We are here in order to take your concerns and investigate, but sharing them on social media is not the means by which to do that because we cannot take recourse on social media," Shoihet said. 

In the past, similar social media warnings have been determined to be hoaxes.

There are, however, many instances where community concern went unheard before later being validated. Sex workers and advocates warned during the 1990s there was a serial killer at work in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, but Robert Pickton was not arrested until 2002. 

MacDougall described the RCMP's response to recent rumours as a "missed opportunity" to talk about the prevalence of sexualized violence in the community and offer support to survivors.

"What we don't want is for the police to be in a position where they're silencing those that want to raise concern, but rather to create opportunities for us to discuss what is a serious social problem — a social problem that the police have a very, very bad track record [with]," she said.

"Whether or not people are connecting disappearance in ways that have yet to be confirmed … so many women and girls and people of marginalized genders walk in a lot of fear in the public realm," she added. 

"Social media has been one of the ways in which this conversation has happened and that's actually been healthy, I think, because it's made visible that which has been rendered invisible for far too long."