Nova Scotia·Eskasoni Community Bureau

Mi'kmaw alert system helps find people missing from Indigenous Cape Breton communities

Since its inception, 37 children and young adults have reunited with their families after being reported missing or wandering off, says system developer.

Former first responder developed system that now serves 4,000 people

Jennifer Jesty developed an emergency system for the five First Nations in Cape Breton. Since launching in September 2020, there have been 107 alerts sent out and more than 4,000 people have registered for the system. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

This story is part of a series from CBC's Eskasoni Community Bureau. This series comes from weeks of conversations with community members about what they feel is important to see, hear and read on CBC's platforms.

Jennifer Jesty will never forget the first emergency alert she sent about a missing girl in Cape Breton.

The developer of a Mi'kmaw-led system for five First Nations in Cape Breton said the program wasn't fully launched when police reached out looking for help.

"I typed out the alert, and I hit send, and then I just paced the floor," said Jesty.

"It was about 45 minutes later, [that police] called back and said, 'Jennifer, how did you do that? She is home and safe with her family. You were able to do in 45 minutes what we couldn't do in 24 hours.'"

Jesty, a former paramedic and firefighter, developed the Unama'ki Alert System through her role as emergency resilience manager with the Union of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq.

Reunited with families

There have been 107 alerts sent to people in the communities of Membertou, Eskasoni, Potlotek, Wagmatcook and We'koqma'q since the program launched in September 2020.

Jesty said that among the alerts, 37 involved children and young adults who were reunited with their families after being reported missing or wandering off. Additional alerts were for things such as boil water orders, shootings, car crashes, traffic congestion and warnings about suspects looking to recruit young Indigenous women into the sex trade.

A sample alert is shown in this 2020 handout photo. (Jennifer Jesty via The Canadian Press)

Prior to the system's launch, Cape Breton's Mi'kmaw communities were reliant on police and other agencies for communicating with residents at a time of crisis. Now, more than 4,000 people have signed up for the Unama'ki Alert System and receive messages via cellphone, home phone or email.

The messages are in both English and Mi'kmaq.

Jesty said she created the system in partnership with a software company known as Everbridge. The Unama'ki alert program is now funded by Indigenous Services Canada.

"I'm so proud of the system and I'm so honoured that we've come this far," said Jesty.

"It gets to the point now that if there's something going on in a community … residents are very quick to take to social media and say, 'Well, where's the alerts?' People are expecting and asking for it."

Protocols created with local chiefs

Jesty said that protocols, criteria and proper wording for alerts were created in partnership with the five First Nation chiefs in Cape Breton, who are also responsible for sending them out.

Leroy Denny, chief of Eskasoni, said the system workers faster and more efficiently, which is important when people are in need.

"Nowadays, especially with [the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls] movement, you know, we don't take it lightly," said Denny. "We send it out right away. And the community, they respond to the police right away. And so it's a really great communication tool."

Denny said most of the alerts sent out in Eskasoni are for missing people.

Chief Leroy Denny of the Eskasoni First Nation said the alert system works very well. (Robert Short/CBC)

Jesty said one thing she learned as a first responder is that every second counts.

Jesty recently offered her expertise to officials at Nova Scotia's Mass Casualty Commission, telling them that rather than being viewed as intrusive, alerts can be provided through a system where people are required to opt-in.

"I just wanted them to know that there is another way — there are other alternatives," she said.

"When you're trying to convey very serious information that has an imminent threat to life and safety — it's pretty important to get that information out quickly, where there is not going to be a lot of red tape or bureaucracy involved."

Jesty would love to see the alert system expanded to other Indigenous communities and all communities across the country.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Pottie

Reporter

Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 15 years. Story ideas welcome at erin.pottie@cbc.ca.

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