Who are Saskatchewan's missing and murdered indigenous women?
Unsolved Sask. cases continue to haunt family members, stump investigators
Margaret Blackbird, Naomi Desjarlais, Danita Bigeagle, and Janine Wesaquate are just a few of the 33 names of women who either went missing or were murdered in Saskatchewan and whose cases may never be solved.
Among these names is Melanie Dawn Geddes. The 24-year-old mother of three disappeared walking about four blocks to her home in north central Regina, in the early morning hours of Aug. 13, 2005. Four months later, her remains were found north of the city in a field. In the time between Melanie's disappearance and the discovery of her remains her mother, Valerie Smokeyday said the days all blended together.
"It was very blurry," Smokeyday said. "Some of it I remember and some of it I don't because it was so hard."
With each ground search, largely organized by family, Smokeyday said she'd pause before looking under a shrub or in a hole because the fear of finding her daughter was almost more than she could take. As the days dragged on into weeks and then months, Smokeyday knew something was terribly wrong because Melanie would never leave her three daughters.
After Melanie's remains were discovered, the focus shifted to Melanie's daughters and making sure they were properly supported.
To date, no one has ever been charged with her murder and the Geddes family has been living with a cloud over their heads, questions they fear will never be answered.
"I just want justice to be served," Melanie's oldest daughter, 17-year-old Katie Cleveland said. "I want to find out who did that and ask why they did that to her."
There is also frustration. Several officers and two different police departments have been involved Melanie's case. It's also been more than a year since Valerie Smokeyday has heard from police about what might be happening in her daughter's case.
"It felt like after we buried her that nobody cared. We went to a couple of the conferences and stuff that they had and after that it just died."
A grassroots movement
Lori Whiteman was teaching on Standing Buffalo First Nation, her home community, when one of her former students went missing. Amber Redman disappeared in July 2005, just one month before Melanie Dawn Geddes. Whiteman, shocked by her disappearance, reached out to Redman's mother, Gwenda Yuzicappi.
Whiteman could relate. Whiteman's mother had disappeared in the mid-1980s and it had taken years to get her case on the books. Yuzicappi invited Whiteman to a meeting in Ottawa where the Native Women's Association of Canada was gathering the families of missing and murdered women together.
"I was really thankful for that opportunity," Whiteman remembers. "But it was a little bit overwhelming because I really hadn't talked to anybody because I thought at the time who would I talk to about this, who would care, who would listen."
Turns out a lot of people. At the meeting, Whiteman gathered with Yuzicappi, Pauline Muskego, whose daughter Dahleen was murdered, and Myrna LaPlante, whose aunt had also gone missing. They realized their cases were not isolated, not in their home province of Saskatchewan. In fact, there was a much larger trend going on in Canada.
From there, these women founded some of the early grassroots movements and tried to raise awareness that their mothers, sisters, daughters and friends were disappearing and being murdered and some of those cases were going unsolved. They also tried to make the larger community see that the missing posters and ground searches making the nightly news were not one-off, random crimes. Each story was indicative of a much bigger problem.
Whiteman also credits social media.
"Suddenly, you had a space where you had a national, an international, global audience to the things that were of interest and urgency to you. You could have pictures of people. I just prompted widespread sharing."
The community responds
Today, the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women is widely known. But in Saskatchewan in particular, the way these cases are being handled has changed and continues to change.
Sgt. Ken Palen is the head of the Historical Case Unit for the RCMP in Saskatoon. It handles all of the cases in the northern half of the province. Palen himself has been part of the unit since about 2007 and many things have changed in his time there.
He says in the 1960s and 1970s a missing person's case would be added to the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) for about six months. If it wasn't solved, it would then be removed from the system. DNA did not really come into use until the 1980s.
Today, DNA is critical and the smallest samples can break the biggest cases. Police also have criminal profiling, geographic profiling, forensic pathology and statement analysis as well as Violent Criminal Linkage System (ViCLAS). Saskatchewan also has a Missing Persons Taskforce, which resulted in the Saskatchewan Association Chiefs of Police website, a site regularly updated with all missing persons.
Sgt. Palen said his unit now gets involved at the beginning of a missing person's file. They ensure that every effort is made to find a missing person and that things like dental records, DNA and other evidence is gathered and kept in case the does turn cold.
"I was trying to reduce the amount of long term missing," Sgt. Palen said. "Since we've been doing our reviews we have not had any long term missing persons added to our provincial website from the RCMP side of things."
Still, the cases continue to roll in, from drownings, to found human remains, missing persons, homicides and suspicious deaths. Sgt. Palen estimates his unit receives about 15 news cases per year and clears about seven, which is why officer placements in the unit have been extended from three to five years, to five to eight years. Part of their job is to select which case is next, and there is a system.
"Picture an escalator and a box going up one each step. And each member of our unit has an investigation or two that are on that escalator. As we all focus on, like we work together as a team on one or two investigations at a time," Palen said. "And once that investigation gets to the top of the escalator and its furthered either through charges or there's resolution in some other way. The next case grows life and away it goes."
For those still waiting for resolution, there is a mix of frustration and acceptance.
Moving on with life is important. Until recently, two of Melanie Dawn Geddes' daughters lived with their grandmother, Valerie Smokeyday. Melanie's oldest daughter, Katie, is now living on her own, raising her own daughter, Dustina. The beautiful, happy 18-month-old is a reminder that her grandmother has left a real legacy in children and now grandchildren.
Smokeyday wants people to remember that Melanie's killer or killers remain at large and that her case needs solving.
For others, like Lori Whiteman, she knows the likelihood of her mother's case being solved, is slim. It's not clear where Delores Whiteman went missing or even when exactly.
"I'm no longer at that point where I feel this bitterness and towards law enforcement because they're not doing their job," Whiteman said. "Because I understand, in my mind I understand they don't have the manpower, they don't have the training, they until recently really didn't have an idea of even the stats and extent of how much this is happening across the country — although they probably could have and should have."
Whiteman said she has had to find a way to make peace with her situation. She has left it up to a higher power, and says she is now prepared to hear the answers should they ever present themselves. Whiteman said what is encouraging is the next generation of young women, keeping this issue alive and ensuring that missing and murdered indigenous women are remembered, honoured and that future generations will be less vulnerable.
If you know anything about these cases, or any other missing persons cases, call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS.