Families of MMIWG say police neglected, mishandled investigations in their cases
Families of Chelsea Poorman, Tatyanna Harrison, Noelle O’Soup and Ramona Wilson speak out
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
For Brenda Wilson, Tuesday will be a day for families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to unite and hold each other up.
Hundreds of vigils will be held across Canada Oct. 4 to honour the lives of Indigenous women, girls, and gender diverse people who have gone missing or been murdered.
Wilson's 16-year-old sister Ramona Wilson went missing in June 1994 from Smithers, B.C. Her body was found 10 months later in a wooded area. The case remains unsolved.
"There's still no answers in my sister's case," said Wilson.
"Who did this to her? Who murdered her? Who hurt her? Who took her away from us?"
She was among several families to speak at a virtual news conference Monday organized by Families of Sisters in Spirit and Amnesty International Canada ahead of the annual Oct. 4 vigils.
Amnesty International Canada said the recent cases of Chelsea Poorman, Tatyanna Harrison and Noelle O'Soup in the lower mainland of British Columbia highlight that violence against Indigenous women and girls remains a crisis, with inadequate support from police.
"The communication with law enforcement to the family and the community has come to a halt which leads me to feel no effort or resources are being put into her case," said Natasha Harrison.
Her daughter Tatyanna Harrison's body was found on May 2 on a yacht in Richmond, B.C., but was only identified three months later. Harrison said the police deemed the circumstances of her death not suspicious and closed the file, despite not yet receiving the results of toxicology tests.
Sheila Poorman echoed similar sentiments about how police handled her daughter Chelsea Poorman's case.
On May 6, 24-year-old Chelsea Poorman's remains were identified after being found in a Vancouver mansion following months of searching by her family. The case was also quickly labelled non-suspicious.
"They need to be doing a better job," said Poorman.
The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls found that the violence experienced by Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse people amounts to genocide.
In its 231 Calls for Justice, 11 were directed at police services, including calling for the establishment of standarized response times to reports of missing Indigenous people, and to improve communication with families.
Josie August, a relative of Noelle O'Soup, questions why there was no Amber Alert issued when the 13-year-old went missing from a group home in Port Coquitlam, B.C., in May 2021.
A year later, her remains were found in an apartment in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. August said communication between the RCMP, Vancouver Police and the family has been minimal, and that they learned more information from a recent CBC News report about the deceased occupant of the apartment.
"It makes it feel as if they do not care about Noelle. To them, she was just another missing Indigenous teen," said August.
"I find it very disheartening that we find more through the media than we do through the Vancouver Police Department."
Police say 'exhaustive investigations' conducted
The Vancouver Police Department said in a statement to CBC News that over the past 10 years, it has just one unsolved case involving a missing Indigenous woman.
"We have worked closely and collaboratively with the families of Chelsea Poorman and Tatyanna Harrison to investigate the circumstances of their disappearances," said Sgt. Steve Addison, media relations officer with the Vancouver Police Department.
"Led by our Major Crime Section, we've conducted exhaustive investigations to gather evidence about their last movements in Vancouver."
Addison said there is an ongoing criminal investigation into the death of O'Soup, and the police met privately with her biological parents and the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
"There have been concerns expressed about delays in notifying families about the discovery of their loved ones. Each of these cases required DNA analysis to confirm identities," he said.
"It would have been inappropriate and irresponsible to draw conclusions without scientific evidence. Once the remains of Tatyanna, Chelsea and Noelle were identified via DNA, we immediately notified next of kin in each case."
Vigils bring strength, awareness
Wilson said the police didn't take her sister's missing persons case seriously, and it's disheartening to hear little has changed in 28 years.
"You think after all these years of being an advocate for MMIW that things would have changed … but as we see today, and as we hear the stories of all these families, nothing has changed," she said.
Oct. 4 vigils, however, will be an important day for awareness, she said.
"It brings us strength to be able to move forward and to keep going, to keep bringing that awareness and to keep advocating for our loved ones."
With files from Michelle Ghoussoub