Stolen sisters

5 untold stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls from a Manitoba First Nation with Canada's most unsolved cases

There's a quietness to Sagkeeng First Nation.

Waves lap on the shore of the Winnipeg River, which flows through the centre of the community.

Red dresses tied to trees sway in the wind outside a handful of homes — hollow reminders of the women and girls taken from their families, communities and kitchen tables.

For a long time, many families have kept their grief private.

"When these things happen, you don't talk about it," Gloria Guimond, 72, told CBC News.

But in recent years, this community of just 4,000 people has been thrust into the spotlight.

In April 2017, the death of Serena McKay made headlines around the world after a video suspected of showing the fatal beating of the 19-year-old was shared on social media.

Three years earlier, the killing of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, a Sagkeeng girl whose body was bagged and tossed into the Red River in Winnipeg, gripped the country.

A CBC News analysis after Fontaine's death found that Sagkeeng, a community 100 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, has the highest number of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. There were six.

CBC News is now documenting five more cases dating back more than four decades. Two are unsolved. Three are unresolved, meaning families refute the police findings.

Gloria Guimond's mother, Frances May Ellah, was killed in 1975. She and other families are sharing their stories for the first time.

"Not just for [my mother]," she said.

"To let people know this didn't just happen 10 to 15 years ago. It goes back 40 to 50 years."

Fatal fall or killing?

Ellah, also known as Frances Cook, was a small, quiet-natured woman from Fort Alexander, now known as Sagkeeng First Nation.

"She was pretty. A nice, pretty woman," Guimond said. "She never complained."

On June 15, 1975, the residential school survivor was found injured in the stairwell of a Wolseley Avenue apartment. She died in hospital at age 59.

Frances May Ellah was found injured in an apartment block stairwell. (Gloria Guimond)

Frances May Ellah was found injured in an apartment block stairwell. (Gloria Guimond)

An autopsy revealed she had a fractured skull, bleeding in the brain stem and a "star-shaped laceration" on the back of her head, "caused by a blunt force object." The report also stated she had a blood alcohol level of 0.22, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that year.

At the time, city police concluded Ellah was intoxicated and her injuries were likely the result of a fall.

'I felt sorry for her for her to die that way.'

Gloria Guimond, Frances May Ellah's daughter

A pathologist, however, said the bleeding of the brain stem was unusual and associated with a sudden snap of the head — a potential indicator of foul play.

"I felt sorry for her for her to die that way," Guimond said. "I was shocked."

Guimond didn't know her mother until she was an adult. Ellah left shortly after Guimond was born. The pair met later in life in Winnipeg, but Guimond said they never became close.

"I saw her periodically in Winnipeg when I was raising my little family," Guimond said. "She would come and visit the kids — very lovable with the kids."

In the fall of 1975, an inquest was called into her mother's death. In the end, the judge decided it was impossible to know if Ellah died by accident or at the hands of someone else.

"That leaves it open for the police, it may be one of the unsolved cases," the judge was quoted as saying at the October 1975 inquest.

He recommended police continue to investigate, but the case has remained unsolved.

To this day, Guimond said she still wonders what really happened.

"I kind of had a feeling that she was killed," she said.

'You just can't shove these things under the rug.'

Gloria Guimond

In an email to CBC, a spokesperson for the Winnipeg Police Service said investigators will “examine the findings of detectives in the original investigation.”

Back in Sagkeeng, Guimond said the number of women and girls her community has lost is heartbreaking.

"You just can't shove these things under the rug, you know," she said. "There is more and more women that were never investigated, and it kind of makes you cry.”

Drowning or murder?

Russell Daniels lives in Sagkeeng on the sandy shores of the Winnipeg River, which stole his sister 43 years ago, police told the family.

"I was so close to my sister," Daniels, 57, said through tears. "That was my best friend. I still think of her all the time."

Marilyn Daniels, his eldest sister, was 17 and three months pregnant the night he last saw her: June 21, 1975.

"The last thing I said to her? 'Have a good time,'" Daniels said. "I blame myself to this day."

Marilyn Rose Daniels died June 21, 1975. (Russell Daniels)

Marilyn Rose Daniels died June 21, 1975. (Russell Daniels)

Daniels built a small ladder and helped Marilyn sneak out of the window of the family's home so she could meet her boyfriend.

Daniels said Marilyn, her boyfriend and two other friends piled into a 12-foot fibreglass boat and paddled out onto the Winnipeg River.

The next day, Marilyn’s body was pulled from the water.

Marilyn Daniels' body was pulled from the Winnipeg River near Sagkeeng First Nation on June 22, 1975. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

Newspapers at the time reported the boat capsized and Marilyn drowned. An autopsy report revealed her death was consistent with drowning and made no mention of marks or bruises.

But Daniels was never convinced. He and other family members have long believed Marilyn’s boyfriend killed her.

"He made it look like a drowning," Daniels said.

At a party one night after his sister’s death, one of the men who had been on the boat spilled what happened, Daniels said.

"[He said] 'Your sister didn't drown,'" Daniels said. "The guy told us that her boyfriend hit her with a paddle in the forehead ... When she was laying in her casket, she had a blue forehead."

Daniels and other siblings believe she was either knocked out and left in the water, or held under.

Despite his father’s pleas to the band constable and RCMP, police never laid charges, Daniels said.

'I hope I can get justice for my sister.'

Russell Daniels

"We tried to charge him with murder, but his uncle was the band constable," he said. "My dad went to the RCMP. They didn't do nothing about it."

A spokesperson for the Manitoba RCMP told CBC they have no record of the investigation.

"If the file was concluded as a Fatality Inquiries Act investigation, in this case drowning, the file would have been destroyed after a set period of time," an RCMP spokesperson said in an email.

The man Daniels believes killed his sister went on to serve a life sentence for second-degree murder of another Sagkeeng girl. He is currently serving life in prison for first-degree murder of a fellow inmate.

Daniels wants RCMP to reopen his sister’s case.

“I hope I can get justice for my sister," he said. "That's the main thing I want for her."

He also wants the community to do more to keep his grandchildren and other youth engaged and safe.

“That's the only way they'll save these girls,” he said.

“There's no programs for our kids, our younger generation. I'd like to see them start stuff here for our kids.”

A child’s empty casket

Karen Morrisseau was last seen 39 years ago in a beige, long-sleeved blouse with green flowers. She was 11.

She moved to Winnipeg from Sagkeeng First Nation in the '60s with her mother after her father left them.

"She was a loving little girl," said her mother, Caroline Morrisseau. "Every morning before she left to school, she came and kissed me."

On the morning of May 12, 1978, Morrisseau didn’t get a kiss. Karen was nowhere to be found in the family’s Dufferin Avenue townhouse. She was gone.

Morrisseau recalled going first to Karen’s school. No one had seen her. Next, she went to the store Karen liked to stop in at. The staff hadn’t seen her, either.

“It was just like it was just yesterday when I talk about it," her mother said, choking back tears. “I remember everything what we went through, looking and looking all over."

She called police that morning. By the following Monday, Karen's picture appeared in local newspapers.

A week later, Winnipeg detectives made a grim discovery at the West St. Paul dump: charred bones.

Karen’s cousin, Orton John Fontaine, 21, was charged with second-degree murder in her death.

At his trial, Manitoba's chief medical examiner told the jury of 12 he was "quite confident" the remains found by city police "were consistent with those of Karen Morrisseau."

Dental X-rays set the odds of the bones being someone else's at about one in 4,000, he said. He had signed the death certificate and the bones were cremated, the Winnipeg Free Press reported at the time.

But Morrisseau hasn’t found closure. She is not convinced the bones were Karen’s.

"I didn't believe it," she said. "There was no remains. That's why I believe she's still somewhere."

'I bought her a nice white gown to put on and that's what I put in that casket.'

Caroline Morrisseau

Karen was supposed to receive her first communion on Mother's Day — the weekend she disappeared.

"I bought her a nice white gown to put on and that's what I put in that casket," Morrisseau said.

Morrisseau doesn’t visit the grave, she said, because she knows Karen isn’t there. Instead, she keeps a photo of her daughter in her Winnipeg apartment and still talks to her.

"I tell her I love her so much and I miss her and, 'You should phone me and let me know where you are,'" she said. "Even in a dream."

Morrisseau said she has “mixed feelings” about the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

“I'm always worried for my other kids, for them to get hurt,” she said. “I don't think I'd be able [to cope] if something horrible happens like that again.”

Without a trace

Linda Rose Guimond was born a day before Christmas in 1963. She was the youngest of 14 children.

Talking about her still brings her brother Norman Guimond, 73, to tears.

"She had long hair, kind of fair complexion. She had a beautiful smile — that's what I loved about her," he said. "She was a fun, spirited girl. She was my baby girl, my baby sister.”

Linda was a toddler when their parents split and the children were divided into different homes, Guimond said. He stayed and lived with his father while attending the residential school on Sagkeeng First Nation. His sister was adopted by a family in nearby Pine Falls, Man.

The siblings fell in and out of touch over the years.

Linda, a mother of three, was living in Winnipeg when she disappeared, Guimond said.

"What hurts most for people, I guess, is not having the closure," he said. "My mom kept up hope for many years. She wanted to see her baby girl come back home."

'Not knowing where she is and what really happened to her, her last moments — I think about that all the time.'

Norman Guimond

He can no longer recall the date his sister vanished, he said.

It was winter, in the mid-'80s. The details are vague.

"My mom's take on it ... is she was looking after her little ones and Linda wanted to go to the store, I guess the convenience [store], probably in February. It was cold and she said she just went out with a little jacket, and she said, ‘That was the last time I seen Linda.’"

She may have left for Vancouver, hitchhiking with a boyfriend, he said.

Guimond said relatives reported her disappearance to police but the Winnipeg Police Service, Manitoba RCMP, Vancouver Police Department and B.C. RCMP have no record of her case.

The lack of information is what's most difficult, Guimond said.

"Not knowing where she is and what really happened to her, her last moments — I think about that all the time," he said. "How can anyone disappear, you know, without leaving a clue?"

Norman Guimond, 73, reminisces about his sister Linda Rose Guimond, who disappeared in the mid-80's. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

More than 30 years later, he still works to keep her memory alive by making an annual trip to the land they grew up on.

A photo of Linda also hangs on a star blanket at the Turtle Lodge in the community.

"To make myself feel a bit better, I say she's in a good place even though she's not here," he said. "She's in a good spirit world somewhere, but she just can't cross over."

He hopes sharing his sister's story might jog someone's memory. He would like to see police revisit the case and ask more questions.

"She was a human being. She was someone's baby girl," he said. "I'm sure there's somebody out there that's seen something. Why didn't they speak up? It happens all the time. It's not just us."

Pickton victim

Isabel Fontaine helped raise her younger sister, Sharon Nora Jane Abraham, while growing up with five siblings on Sagkeeng First Nation.

Fontaine said she best remembers her sister's friendliness and thoughtfulness.

“Her laughter, her sense of humour — she had a lot of sense of humour. She’d buy gifts and she’d know exactly what you want — she would have her eyes on stuff,” said Fontaine.

Abraham, 39, left the family to find work in Vancouver, which was difficult for Fontaine to accept. Abraham always stayed in touch with her family by phone.

Abraham started her own family, becoming a mother of five while working on her post-secondary studies. But she struggled with drinking, her family said.

One day, Abraham’s phone calls stopped.

Abraham went missing from New Westminster in January 2004, RCMP said. Her aunt Mary Lacroix went to search for her niece in Vancouver several times but never came home with any leads.

Even though she knew her sister’s life was "in shambles," Fontaine did not agree with police, who she said told family members Abraham was a sex trade worker and "probably out partying."

Then one day, another aunt, Grace Starr, arrived at Fontaine’s house.

"She drove over and said, 'I have bad news. They found Sharon,'" Fontaine said.

In November 2004, forensic evidence linked Abraham to Robert Pickton’s farm. The family said one of her fingernails was found on his property.

Pickton was a serial killer from Port Coquitlam, B.C., who was arrested in 2002 and charged with 26 counts of first-degree murder. He was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder in December 2007 and sentenced to life; charges in the other 20 cases were stayed in August 2010. The remains of 33 women were found on his farm, including Abraham, but charges were never laid in her case.

'Just imagine hearing your own sister screaming from way over there [in] B.C.'

Isabel Fontaine

Abraham's case was one of six cases in which the Crown did not lay any charges.

"Despite this, we still believe that Pickton was responsible for her death," Cpl. Janelle Shoihet, a B.C. media relations officer said in an email. "The B.C. Coroner has issued a death certificate using information gleaned from the investigation but in the absence of new or different information, no further action will be taken by the project team."

Fontaine believes Pickton fed her sister’s body to his animals.

“Just imagine hearing your own sister screaming from way over there [in] B.C.,” she said.

She remembers the last phone call with her sister.

“She was starting to talk like something was going to happen to her,” Fontaine said. “She didn’t describe it but you could hear it in her voice, like fear — you know how fear sounds in a voice.”

Sharon Abraham's aunt Linda Arkinson recalls the difficult memorial service held for her niece.  (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Linda Arkinson, 61, Sharon’s aunt, lives in Sagkeeng and said she still struggles living without her special niece.

“It was very hard to hear where she had died, because I’ve heard how [Robert Pickton] tortured women and she must have gone through a lot being on that farm where she must have been tortured to death,” said Arkinson.

“We had a memorial service for her and we had nothing. We buried an empty box.”

Arkinson would rather remember her niece's smile.

“Her laughter was the one [thing] I remember the most,” said Arkinson. “When I see her picture, that’s what I hear from her, is her laughter."

In memory of Sagkeeng's missing and murdered:

Frances May Ellah (1975)
Marilyn Rose Daniels (1975)
Karen Nadine Morrisseau (1978)
Barbara Twoheart (1978)
Linda Rose Guimond (1980s)
Glenda Morrisseau (1991)
Marjorie Henderson (Morrisseau) (1993)
Moira Erb (2003)
Sharon Abraham (2004)
Stephanie Buboire (2004)
Kelly Morrisseau (2006)
Crystal Saunders (2007)
Fonessa Bruyere (2007)
Tina Fontaine (2014)
Jeanenne Fontaine (2017)

Producers: Melanie Verhaeghe and Amber Hildebrandt
Editors: Lara Schroeder and Andre Mayer
Graphic designer: Duk Han Lee
Packaging: Bryce Hoye
Videographers: Jill Coubrough, Tyson Koschik and Jaison Empson