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'They're not just statistics': Samson Cree Nation family searches for answers in 3 deaths

An arrest this week in a year-old homicide of a Samson Cree Nation woman was bittersweet for one family that has been all-but overwhelmed by tragedy in recent years.

Charge laid in woman’s death, but questions remain around the deaths of her mother and aunt

The family of Cheryl, Debra and Trisheena Simon has mixed emotions after finding out RCMP charged a Lethbridge woman with manslaughter in Trisheena's death. 1:25

An arrest this week in a year-old homicide of a Samson Cree Nation woman was bittersweet for one family that has been all-but overwhelmed by tragedy in recent years.

Cheryl, Debra and Trishenna Simon, three women who shared so much more than a surname, all dead within three years, their loved ones left to grieve, and to search for answers.

Cheryl Simon went first. She was 42 when she died from a drug overdose in Maskwacis RCMP holding cell in April 2014.

Her sister, Debra, was the same age when she was found dead in April 2016 in a ditch on the outskirts of Red Deer. She had drugs in her bloodstream.

The youngest of the three, Trisheena Simon, was Cheryl's daughter. She died in hospital after she was found badly beaten outside a Calgary bank in February 2017.

On Wednesday, police announced they had charged a 45-year-old Lethbridge woman with manslaughter in Trisheena's death.

News of the charge brought a small sense of relief, the family said.

"You can finally breathe, like as if you've been holding your breath for so long," said Katherine Swampy, a cousin of the three women.

'They had family members who loved them'

Holly Simon, a younger sister of two of the dead women and an aunt of the third, said she wants people to recognize that though her sisters and her niece struggled with substance abuse, they loved their families, and their families loved them.

"I just want people to know that Aboriginal women and men, actually all races, they're not just statistics," she said. "They're people.

"I just want other family to not give up, especially if they have a family member with a drug or alcohol problem."

Swampy put it this way: "They had family members who loved them. They were mothers, they were sisters, they were aunts, they were cousins."

Irene Omeatoo raised Trisheena during her formative teenage years.

In the small living room of her tidy home on Samson Cree Nation, Irene sat this week with Holly and Katherine to share memories, and talk about their pain.

Katherine Swampy, Irene Omeatoo and Holly Simon, pictured in Omeatoo's living room Thursday, look at family pictures. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Holly spoke about the night of April 14, 2014, when she waited up on for her oldest sister, Cheryl, who had been arrested by Maskwacis RCMP for public intoxication.

In the morning, Holly said, she received a call from the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, where Cheryl was on life support. Her sister, she said, had overdosed on drugs before she was taken into custody, and had stopped breathing sometime during the night.

Family later decided to take her off life support.

Two years later, Holly was taking care of the children of her next oldest sister, Debra, who was living in Red Deer with her common-law partner.

On April 18, 2016, Holly was told Debra was dead.

"She was found in a ditch, like nothing," Holly said. "They just said she died of a drug overdose.

"I fell to the ground and screamed."

'There's no more pain'

Holly said she never had the chance to say goodbye to either of her sisters. When she learned on Feb. 22, 2017, that Trisheena, 28, had been beaten but was alive in Calgary hospital, she rushed to her side.

Her niece, she said, had been living on the streets and struggling with alcohol abuse.

"I know she was going through pain from the loss of her mom, because we talked, we talked all the time," Holly said. "She felt guilty."

While she sat in the hospital room, Holly spoke to her niece.

"I told her that, 'Trisheena, you can go if you want. There's no more pain. I love you and it will all be OK.' I saw her take a breath. I know she heard me."

Irene said she had known her foster daughter was hurting and had tried to help her in recent years.

The program from Trisheena Simon's memorial. (Supplied by Irene Omeatoo)

"My girl, she was my baby," said Irene, who had been trying to connect with Trisheena in Calgary before her death.

"She'd call me and she'd say, 'Come and pick me up. I want to go home.' But she wouldn't give me the right address, where I was supposed to meet her, she wouldn't be there," Irene said.

Trisheena had two daughters, aged 11 and 7. They live with their father, from whom Trisheena had been separated.

Irene said she makes an effort to see them.

"What do we say to the kids?" she asked. "The girls?"

The family members say they know there are others like them who are also looking for answers in the deaths of loved ones.

"To see native women, especially, being disregarded as nothing, constantly disregarded as nothing … , " Swampy said. 'You would think in 2018 today that women are no longer seen as just sexual objects. We should be seen as people. We should be seen as equals."

Swampy said she was upset by the 2015 acquittal of a suspect in the killing of Cindy Gladue, who was found dead in an Edmonton motel room, and the 2017 acquittal of the suspect in the case of Tina Fontaine, who was found dead in a Winnipeg river.  

"Even if they weren't our answers, these were answers for women who were on the missing and murdered list," she said.

"It broke my heart because it felt so close to home, because they are so close to home."

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

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