Questions linger 2 decades after death of Batchewana First Nation woman

The family of Deborah Anne Sloss is still searching for answers 20 years after the investigation into her death was closed.

Toronto Police say Sloss's case has never been re-opened, but that could change with new information

Deborah Anne Sloss, 42, was found dead in her Toronto rooming house in 1997. (Supplied)
The family of Deborah Anne Sloss is still searching for answers 20 years after the investigation into her death was closed. 

"[My daughter] She asks me all the time like what happened to your mommy? How come she died," Sloss's daughter Laura Lacrosse said. 

"I can't tell her why and it's wrong, and now I have grandsons so now what do I say to them?"

Sloss, 42, was originally from Batchewana First Nation near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. 

Her body was found on the afternoon of July 29, 1997 in in her Toronto rooming house. 

Police classified the incident as a sudden death, and foul play was not suspected.  

Sloss's sister Cathy went to the police station to get more information, according to Sloss's sister Mary Lou Smoke and brother-in-law Dan Smoke.

Reconnected with her culture during final days

The Smokes said police told Cathy that Sloss liked to party too much and they called her an "unfortunate author of her own misfortune."

They said they were devastated after those comments were made.

"It was just like getting kicked in the stomach," Mary Lou Smoke said.

"They never did investigate to find out who murdered her. To this day we don't know who murdered her and why."

Toronto Police declined CBC's request for an interview.

Const. Meaghan Gray wrote in an email statement that Sloss's case has never been re-opened, but that could change should further information become available.
Laura Lacrosse's daughter Mackinlee beside a photograph of her grandmother Deborah Anne Sloss at Amnesty International in Ottawa on Oct. 4, 2013. The family attended a vigil for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The Smokes believe Sloss was targeted, and died as a result of blunt force trauma. 

They said her death is even more tragic because Sloss was trying to reconnect with her culture during her final days. 

"We were very proud of her, and we saw that there was potential," Dan Smoke said.

"She started realizing that our culture is very rich in terms of family, extended family and everyone is connected to every one else and she liked it. That's when we knew that she was changing."

'Didn't know how to cope with that fear'

Lacrosse said she believes her mom suffered from from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a car accident outside of Sudbury in 1979.

Lacrosse, who was 5 at the time, remembers her family hitting a soft shoulder on the highway and rolling over five times.

She said her mom was trapped underneath. 

"She was pinned under the truck and her two kids were flung out of the truck so it was really traumatic for her," Lacrosse said.

"She had a pin in her shin and one in her shoulder. It really changed her life and probably scared her half to death, and she didn't know how to cope with that fear. Didn't know how to cope with that trauma. I think alcohol was the easy way to mask how you're feeling when you have anxiety and everything else."
Deborah Anne Sloss with her daughter Laura Lacrosse. (Supplied/Laura Lacrosse)

Lacrosse said she thinks they might be in a different position if her mom had been given help after the accident.  

She said her mom was sober at the time of her death.

Speaking to other families a 'saving grace'

Lacrosse said it took seven years for her to tell her mom's story, and she found strength by talking to other families whose sisters, daughters and mothers also went missing or were murdered.

"Nobody can understand what you go through unless they've been there," Lacrosse said.

"But people that I've met, the families that I've met have been my saving grace ... it still causes me so much anxiety and stuff to talk about it, but at least I've talked."

Lacrosse recently attended a pre-hearing for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Thunder Bay, Ont.

She said she wants the commissioners to take a more family-oriented approach, and to spend more time analyzing police investigations. 

"I just don't want another family to have to deal with this," Lacrosse said.

"I think the police should be held accountable for the investigation to see it open and shut without any questions left if that's even possible. I'm never going to get my answer, but somebody else shouldn't have to."

Tune into CBC Sudbury's Morning North at 7:20 a.m. ET during the week of October 23 to hear a new series called Unresolved, about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls from northeastern Ontario. Listen live here.

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: