If I Go Missing tells story of teen's fight for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

Labrador filmmaker Byron Hamel profiles Winnipeg teenager Brianna Jonnie and her fight for the equal treatment of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Filmmaker Byron Hamel says teen has a beautiful heart

Winnipeg teen advocate Brianna Jonnie wants missing Indigenous people to be given the same treatment as non-Indigenous people. (Submitted )

A powerful documentary featuring an Indigenous teenager in Winnipeg who advocates for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is striking an emotional chord with audiences.

In the opening sequences of If I Go Missing, Brianna Jonnie, who is now 17, offers tobacco — a sacred medicine for First Nations peoples — on the bank of the notorious Red River, where a crumpled dress is filmed lying by the water's edge beneath a bridge.

The body of Tina Fontaine, 15, was found in this river in the summer of 2014.

Jonnie sits on a bench reading a letter she sent to the chief of the Winnipeg police force, as well as other city and government officials, when she was 14.

"I am not involved in drugs, alcohol, prostitution. I am not a runaway. I am an honour roll student. A volunteer. A coach. A dancer, a friend and a daughter. I am Indigenous," Jonnie reads aloud.

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They assume that the Indigenous kids are gone willingly.- Byron Hamel 

The teen says non-indigenous people who go missing are treated differently from Indigenous women and girls, and she expresses her fears about walking on the city's streets alone.

"I am more likely to go missing than my peers. I am more likely than my friends to be murdered by a person unknown to me. I am more likely to be raped, assaulted or sexually violated," she says in the letter.

Call to do better 

Filmmaker Byron Hamel, who is from Labrador but now lives in Winnipeg, was inspired by Jonnie's call to treat missing Indigenous women and girls equally.

"The point we want to drive home is that the searches that are made for Indigenous people should be the exact thing as the searches that are done for non-Indigenous people. Not special treatment, equal treatment," he said in an interview with CBC's Labrador Morning.

Filmmaker Byron Hamel says the documentary drives home that searches for missing Indigenous people should be the same as searches for non-indigenous people. He blames racism and a lack of empathy for why they aren't. (Submitted )

Hamel believes the police are doing their job, but says the community at large is slow to get out and help search for missing Indigenous people.

He blames racism and a lack of empathy.

"They assume that the Indigenous kids are gone willingly. They assume that the Indigenous kids, they just have a problem with drugs. As if non-indigenous kids don't have a problem with drugs," he said.

In Jonnie's words, "Asking for the public's help 16 days after an Indigenous girl goes missing is equivalent to announcing publicly her life does not matter."

The passionate letter Jonnie wrote landed her a meeting with the Winnipeg mayor and the police chief, but public reaction to her speaking out was mixed, and some of the comments downright hurtful.

Face of MMIWG

Hamel says while Jonnie is the face of the MMIWG movement in Manitoba, working with her was moving because she cares deeply about everyone.

"This [is] a person from that group of disenfranchised people who is saying she cares about everyone, and she wants good things for everybody. She can't even say it without crying," he explained.

If I Go Missing features the story of Jonnie, who sent an emotional letter to the Winnipeg chief of police and other city officials telling them why they need to do better. (Submitted)

In the film, Hamel also interviews members of Drag the Red, a group that looks for missing Indigenous people in the Red River, as well as the artist behind the Red Dress project, which memorializes murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

I am more likely than my friends to be murdered by a person unknown to me.- Brianna Jonnie

The film ends with a song Hamel's 10-year-old daughter helped write.

It's recorded by Newfoundland group The Once, who are Hamel's friends from university, and serves as a soundtrack to Jonnie dancing on the bank of the Red River as red dresses flutter in the breeze.

Dance of humanity

Hamel says he wanted Jonnie's dance to put a face to the MMIWG movement, to awaken audiences to see the humanity of the issue.

Hamel says he wanted Jonnie to dance to put a face to the MMIWG movement, to awaken audiences to see the humanity of the issue. (Submitted )

The teen's letter warns that if she goes missing, it will not be by choice.

"And if I do go missing and my body is found, please tell my mom you're sorry. Tell her I've asked to be buried in my red dress, for I will have become just another Native statistic," Jonnie writes.

If I Go Missing has been picked up by streaming services Vimeo and Amazon Prime, where it is earning glowing, five-star reviews.

"Powerful film opening our eyes to the Indigenous female experience in Manitoba. There is so much packed into this film's 16 minutes," reads one review on the site.

"There is much to learn from this powerful short film. The truth behind her story is staggering. Kudos to the filmmakers for this sensitive and informative telling," reads another.

Hamel believes the conversation about the treatment of Indigenous people is growing, and wants everyone to watch the story of Brianna Jonnie, an inspiring young Indigenous woman whom he describes as having a "beautiful heart."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


John Gaudi

CBC reporter

John Gaudi reports from Happy Valley-Goose Bay for CBC's Labrador Morning.