Indigenous

Body of Deanna Desjarlais, 27, found in Surrey, B.C.

The body of a young Cree woman who went missing nearly five months ago was found this week in a wooded area in Surrey, B.C. Deanna Desjarlais, 27 and originally from Saskatoon, had travelled to Vernon in late April, and that’s the last time her family heard from her.

RCMP are investigating death, but family of Cree woman say her missing person case was mishandled

The body of Deanna Desjarlais, a young Cree woman who went missing nearly five months ago, was found this week in a wooded area in Surrey, B.C. (Supplied by Dana Morenstein)

The body of Deanna Desjarlais, a young Cree woman who went missing nearly five months ago, was found this week in a wooded area in Surrey, B.C.

Desjarlais, 27, was originally from Saskatoon. She had travelled to Vernon, B.C., in late April, and that's the last time her family heard from her.

Family friend Dana Morenstein says Desjarlais's relatives are absolutely devastated.

"It's such a tragic ending, but I guess it's good to have closure for the family," said Morenstein, who is currently a spokesperson for the grief-stricken family.

The Desjarlais family is now working to get her body home for a funeral, on top of struggling to find answers to how she may have died.

How missing report was handled

The Vancouver Police Department confirmed to the CBC that the RCMP is now investigating the case.

While family members are confident in the RCMP's current investigation, Morenstein said she's concerned with how Desjarlais's missing report initially was handled by the Vancouver Police Department.

"We never felt like they were taking her case seriously," Morenstein said.

Family friend Dana Morenstein says she's concerned with how Deanna Desjarlais' missing report was initially handled by the Vancouver Police Department. (Supplied)
She added that the family also had a difficult time getting in touch with detectives for information, and said that Vancouver police did not release a picture of Desjarlais to the public nor was a missing person's bulletin on the RCMP website.

"It was like they were dismissing her case, because she is an Indigenous woman," said Morenstein.

Vancouver Police spokesman Randy Fincham took exception with that account.

"I can assure you that all missing persons cases reported to the VPD are thoroughly assessed to determine an appropriate police response," Fincham said in an email to CBC.

"That police response will be based on many factors. In the event that as a result of that assessment we determine that a missing person may be at risk, we will utilize a number of investigative techniques and utilize contacts with our community partners to locate that missing person."

While Desjarlais was still missing, the Vancouver police, which was responsible for the case at the time, told the CBC it was making inquiries and tracking her travels to determine where she might be.

Family convinced Desjarlais was murdered

This week, Desjarlais's family learned from the RCMP that she was found in a wooded area without a path to it. At first, her badly decomposed body was difficult to identify, but eventually police were able to get a thumb print.

Morenstein said, initially family members were worried her case would get swept under the rug by the RCMP.

But when Morenstein called the Surrey detachment, detectives said Desjarlais's death was in fact being investigated as suspicious. The B.C. Coroner's office told the CBC it could not comment on the case and that the RCMP are currently investigating.

Morenstein says she will continue to put pressure on the police for answers, for justice for Desjarlais.

Wrote song about MMIW before she went missing

Morenstein said Desjarlais and her five siblings had a difficult life growing up.

"They were just dealt a really rough hand," said Morenstein.

But her family and friends say she was vibrant, humorous and kind.

Deanna Desjarlais 'was bright, bubbly, vivacious, a comedian and very happy-go-lucky,' says Cheryl L'Hirondelle. (Supplied)

Cheryl L'Hirondelle met Desjarlais at a women's group she led in Saskatchewan.

"She was bright, bubbly, vivacious, a comedian and very happy-go-lucky," L'Hirondelle said.

The seven women in the group decided to co-write a song dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women, after a woman from a previous group was found murdered.

"All of the women were quite torn up about it as you can imagine, so we decided to write a song about it," L'Hirondelle said.

The song is called Come my Sister Come, and L'Hirondelle says it's about how they as sisters needed to stand together and band together for change.

Finding out about Desjarlais' death this week, the women in the group are devastated, she said.

"Hopefully people are touched by this enough, they know that this is wrong and must stop," L'Hirondelle said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea? angela.sterritt@cbc.ca

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