Indigenous·Opinion

When Deanna Desjarlais went missing, 'race would be a constant factor'

"My sister's missing. I don't know how to find her." These are the words that my friend, Felicity Desjarlais, wrote to me in June. I called her immediately; "What do you mean, you can't find her?". And so our search began.

'Race would be the constant, sometimes unspoken factor in everything we did to find her,' says Dana Morenstein

"My sister's missing. I don't know how to find her." These are the words that my friend, Felicity Desjarlais, wrote to me in June. I called her immediately; "What do you mean, you can't find her?". And so our search began.

Felicity had lived a hard life — so had her younger sister, Deanna. I met Felicity when we were both young Moms, neighbours in an apartment building in Regina's downtown. I was only 20, and Felicity and I became fast friends. One thing that stood out to me were the looks we would get from strangers as we pushed our babies in their strollers—looks that I never got when I was alone. 

Felicity was First Nations; I was not. When Deanna went missing, race would be the constant, sometimes unspoken factor in everything we did to find her. From our interactions with police, to the media attention, to the racist Facebook comments underneath news articles featuring Deanna's photo.

'Where do you think she could be?'

This question would haunt myself, Felicity and her family for the next three months.

Nobody knew where Deanna was. She didn't own a phone, and had left Saskatoon for Vernon with an individual her family didn't know much about. Such were the acquaintances in Deanna's life — often fleeting, mostly untrustworthy.

Felicity cried as she recalled hearing from Deanna for the last time. Deanna was in tears, surviving in Vancouver's downtown Eastside—she was afraid. "It's hard out here, I want to come home." Felicity told Deanna to speak to a social worker about getting a plane ticket and to phone her back.

She never heard from her again.

As soon as Felicity told me that Deanna was last known to be in the downtown Eastside, I could only think of two words — Robert Pickton. Pickton, a Caucasian pig farmer, had seized the opportunity to murder over twenty women, many of whom were Indigenous. By operating in a culture in which sex trade workers—Indigenous ones, especially—were disregarded by society, media and law enforcement, Pickton became the most infamous serial killer in Canadian history.

Surely, Vancouver Police would have learnt something from this injustice. After all, we live in a time — in a society — in which a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women is underway.

It was the Vancouver Police who had first received a missing persons report from a close friend of Deanna's who had, up until her disappearance, been in weekly contact with her.

I later found out the VPD closed the missing file shortly after it was made. Why? Allegedly, they had said they heard Deanna was in Saskatoon and didn't want to be found, and was possibly living under an assumed identity in order to collect welfare.

Felicity wasn't aware that Deanna has already been reported missing earlier, by someone else. Once Felicity made her report to the VPD, they re-opened Deanna's file.

'Can you please release her photo?'

Felicity gave them all of Deanna's details — height, weight, hair colour, circumstances. "We'll get back to you if we hear anything" was their only response.

Days later, when the VPD didn't release a photo or missing persons bulletin, I phoned the station up. After voicing my concern, the dispatcher explained that they didn't have control over whose photo was released.

"Well, something is wrong. Something has happened. Can you please release her photo?" I pleaded. What if she was out there, somewhere, being taken advantage of or being held against her will?

They never did. Felicity was told by the detective that Deanna was probably fine. Deanna was rumoured to be alive and possibly in Saskatoon. Never the less, I created missing persons flyers and e-mailed them to Vancouver organizations.

Law enforcement claims that they can only release so many missing persons bulletins. Recently, when speaking to media regarding Deanna's case, Sgt. Brian Montague with VPD said VPD can't release all missing persons to the public or else the many bulletins would become "white noise".

Had Deanna not been Indigenous, had she not been a sex trade worker, I am convinced that a missing persons photo would have been released to the public, perhaps generating valuable leads into her whereabouts.

Instead, like in her short life, Deanna was dismissed and overlooked. It would stay this way until her decomposing remains were found in Surrey's Hawthorne Park.

Now, months later, I am here — rallying for some sort of justice. I use my voice and am confident it will be heard—in this sense, I am privileged.

In a society in which Indigenous lives matter and law enforcement must be held accountable, I hope that the inquiry into MMIW will offer a platform for those whose voices have all too often been ignored.  


Editor's note: Vancouver Police spokesman Randy Fincham informed CBC that 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.

About the Author

Dana Morenstein

Dana Morenstein is a family friend of the Desjarlais family and an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women. She is currently working as an elementary teacher at Kahkewistahaw Community School in Saskatchewan.