Campaign seeks $10 million to track cases of vanished, slain native women

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Sunday March 21, 2004

OTTAWA (CP) - Sandra Gagnon will never forget the last words her sister spoke to her before she joined the ranks of missing or murdered aboriginal women.

Sandra Gagnon holds a picture of her sister Janet, who has been missing from Vancouver for seven years.

(CP/Chuck Stoody

"I love you and I miss you much."

"Miss you much" was a reference to one of her sister's favourite Janet Jackson songs, Gagnon recalled.

That was on June 25, 1997. She hasn't heard from Janet Henry since.

Henry's case is among hundreds to be highlighted in a new campaign, Sisters in Spirit, starting Monday with events across Canada.

She was 37, a drug user and sometime prostitute living in a rough but tidy hotel room on Vancouver's squalid Downtown Eastside.

She was also the mother of a daughter, now 19, and she was a cherished sister, said Gagnon in an interview from her Vancouver home.

"Janet didn't end up there overnight. She had a life at one time. I never thought my sister would end up on drugs and on the streets."

Henry's life fell apart about a year before she went missing, Gagnon said, when the man convicted of raping her got a six-month jail term.

"I hate the court system for that."

The Native Women's Association of Canada says it will spend a year urging Ottawa to spend $10 million to research what it estimates are 500 cases in the last 20 years where aboriginal women have been murdered or simply vanished.

It will push for a national registry, a hotline, public education programs and a fund to accurately document cases.

Victims who are poor, addicted and living on society's fringe have too often been neglected, said Gagnon. She will be among speakers scheduled for the campaign launch Monday in Ottawa. Events are also planned in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Charlottetown.

"If it were middle class or high class women who'd gone missing I have a feeling that more would have been done for them," said Gagnon. "These were mothers, daughters, best friends."

Kukdookaa Terri Brown, president of the Native Women's Association, says rumours about a pig farm at Port Coquitlam, B.C., were played down as the number of missing women from the Downtown Eastside - many of them aboriginal - continued to climb.

Robert Pickton now faces 15 first-degree murder charges as the largest homicide investigation in Canadian history continues.

Gagnon fears her sister may have wound up there, but has heard nothing conclusive.

Brown also cites how the disappearance of five native women along a lonely stretch of Highway 16 in B.C. barely caused a media ripple. Alberta Williams, Delphine Nikal, Ramona Wilson, Roxanne Thiara and Lana Derrick all vanished between 1988 and 1995 along what is now known as the Highway of Tears, she said.

In all, the association says 32 aboriginal women are believed to have gone missing along the road between Prince Rupert and Prince George.

Yet, in June 2002, the disappearance of a non-aboriginal woman named Nicole Hoar was front-page news, Brown said.

"We want to keep the pressure on to bring about real change."

RCMP Insp. Conrad Delaronde, of national aboriginal policing services, says any new measures to complement police efforts will be welcome.

He examined 3,300 records of missing females to cull the number of missing aboriginal women over age 18.

He came up with 107 across Canada, but said it could be higher.

The Canadian Police Information Centre computer system does not require officers to denote ethnicity along with physical descriptions, he said.

Delaronde, a Cree with roots on the Skownan First Nation in Manitoba, said the RCMP take each reported disappearance seriously.

"Our ultimate goal is to ensure there's no discrimination of any form or bias toward any group of people."

Still, Amnesty International Canada is completing related research that paints a different picture, says spokesman Alex Neve. Its report is to be released later this spring.

"We share the concern that there are a large number of indigenous women who've been killed or gone missing in this country in circumstances where questions about the police response need to be examined," said Neve.

In Vancouver, Gagnon is still waiting for news of her lost sister.

She hopes to document her family's harrowing past in a book to show others what it's possible to survive, she said.

She lost another sister, Lavina, who was raped and murdered in Nanaimo in the 1970s.

Gagnon says grieving families desperately need assurance that justice will be fully sought.

"Otherwise, it's too much to bear."

Janet Gail Henry

National campaign will document missing or slain native women-Mar 19, 2004

Her wish is for mom to be found-Mar 18, 2003

Sandra Gagnon-I'm not going to give up-Nov 4, 2000

Memorial pays tribute-March 15, 2000

The Mysterious Disappearance of 20 prostitutes-April 2,1999



Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016