'She's with me every step of the way:' B.C. man walks across Canada for missing aunt
Frances Brown went missing north of Smithers, B.C., in October 2017
Matthew Jefferson has been walking across Canada for nearly six months to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, an issue that hits close to home for the 32-year-old.
His aunt, Frances Brown, went missing more than a year ago.
Since leaving Victoria on June 1 for the cross-country walk, he has visited Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay and most recently Montreal, carrying a 40 kg backpack with her photo pinned on the back.
"I miss her every day. But she's with me every step of the way," said Jefferson, whose mother and aunt are from the Witset First Nation in central British Columbia.
Brown, 53, was mushroom picking in a forested area north of Smithers, B.C., on Oct. 14, 2017 when she was separated from her picking companion.
Search and rescue crews from around the province were called in, alongside RCMP and local volunteers. The official search was called off eight days after it began, but family and friends continued until Nov. 11.
"It hit our community quite hard," said Marlene Hale, Brown's cousin.
Brown knew the woods, she said.
"She was well dressed. She's smart. How could she just disappear into thin air?"
Hale works as a chef in Montreal. She remembers getting nightly calls from her sister with updates during the search and rescue efforts.
"After two weeks we knew it was not getting better for us at all. When it [was] over a month, it was harder," she said.
Hale said Jefferson is "a wonderful man."
"The cause, it opens up many wounds for many people. But it's a good wound to open up because at least it will never close."
Cpl. Madonna Saunderson with the B.C. RCMP's north district said the investigation into Brown's disappearance is active and ongoing.
Walking for healing
For Jefferson, the walk has been personally healing, a way to raise awareness of his aunt's case and to talk about issues like systemic racism and intergenerational trauma with the people he meets.
"We all need to work together, Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike,' he said.
"It's up to my generation to heal from residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. It's up to us to heal so that we don't pass that on to our children, and it's up to our generation to work together with other people."
His actions left an impression on Jen Jerome, a Mi'kmaw Montrealer.
"His walk is important because he is sharing his thoughts and feelings regarding his missing auntie and for all the missing aunties, sisters, mothers and daughters out there," she said.
"There's no doubt that many non-Indigenous people do not know fully this serious issue we have in Canada. Hopefully this walk will continue to bring awareness to everyone and have more men come forward to show their support as well."
By February, Jefferson hopes to reach the end of his journey in Cape Spear, N.L.