Proposed memorial would be place for reflection and healing

REGINA When someone dies, there is often a gravesite, a place to gather and remember; when someone vanishes, there is a void.

Lori Whiteman would like to fill that emptiness with a special place for reflection, healing and hope. The "Place of Reflection," as it's proposed, would be dedicated to those missing, but not forgotten people like her mother, Delores "Lolly" Whiteman.

"There is a very real possibility that I may never find my mom, and never, therefore, have a place to go visit a gravesite. And there are other family members who are like me, who may never have that place to go. And the family members who have found their loved ones still need that healing," explains Whiteman. Her mother, originally from the Standing Buffalo Dakota First Nation near Fort Qu'Appelle, was last seen in the Edmonton area in 1987. Today she would be almost 64.

Inspired by a sculpture owned by Whiteman, the proposed memorial, which organizers hope to locate on the RCMP Depot grounds in Regina, is for a stone sculpture of a grandmother by Cree sculptor Lyndon Tootoosis. It's based on a legend about an elderly woman who becomes separated from her family and is expected to die. When they later reconnect, the family remembers her words: "I'll wait here."

"The foundation of (the memorial) comes from the idea of missing women, but it is intended for all of those people who are waiting or who require that strength or who have experienced loss and need a place to go to draw that strength and healing," says Whiteman.

Just as aboriginal women have been the catalyst for the memorial, they have been the impetus for putting all missing persons on the public agenda.

Whiteman is part of Saskatchewan Sisters in Spirit, a grassroots organization formed after Amnesty International raised the alarm about Canada's missing and murdered aboriginal women in a report. Stolen Sisters stated "the (Native Women's Association of Canada) has estimated that over the past twenty years, more than five hundred indigenous women may have been murdered or gone missing in circumstances suggesting violence." Women who largely carried on their lives unnoticed until they were gone became a rallying point for public awareness walks, conferences, studies, and monuments like the one envisioned by Whiteman.

With the spotlight focused on missing aboriginal women, the fact more men go missing in this province has been relegated to the shadows. Among the 95 people in Saskatchewan identified by police as long-term missing, 67 are men and 28 women. Overall the split between aboriginal versus non-aboriginal missing is nearly 50-50. Specifically for men, 36 are caucasian and 29 of aboriginal descent (two are unknown), and among the 28 women, the breakdown is 16 of aboriginal descent to 12 caucasian.

But those working in the area say the raw numbers tell half the story.

RCMP Staff Sgt. Fran Stevenson, who was a member of the Provincial Partnership Committee on Missing Persons, notes a larger proportion of the men reflected in those figures are more likely to be victims of misadventure. For example, 14 of the missing are suspected drownings, and only one of those 14 are women.

"(The men) are out in the bush, they're out hunting those kinds of things . . . In the north with the terrain and men are more likely to be out in those conditions hunters and fishermen, which are predominantly male," he adds.

According to the final report of the Provincial Partnership Committee on Missing Persons, released in 2007, foul play is suspected in 70 per cent of the missing women's cases, but in only 21 per cent of the men's disappearances. Five missing women found in the last three years turned into homicide investigations.

What's more, while aboriginal people make up 48 per cent of the missing they form only 14 per cent of the population. So they are disappearing at a disproportionate rate.

"It is an alarming number of indigenous women that have been missing and those who are missing have been discovered murdered, statistically," says Brenda Anderson, a Luther College professor, who created what's believed to be the first-of-its-kind university class focused on missing indigenous women.

"If we draw attention to one thing, does that mean that we're paying less attention or that that other group is less valuable? Of course, the answer would be no. But statistically, are the men showing up murdered and raped and brutalized in that fashion?" she adds.

"You can't look at it as just a race issue. You can't look at it as just a sexist issue. It's a combination. And violence against women gets played out when people are disempowered, when they're frustrated, when they want to strike out. They're going to look for the weakest one. They're going to look for the one that people won't notice. They're going to have bought into those stereotypes that this really isn't a human being."

The slayings by Robert Pickton in B.C. or the Project KARE task force examining the deaths and disappearances of numerous Alberta women have fuelled fears that a serial killer targeting women may also lurk in the land of the Living Skies.

Stevenson, from Saskatoon RCMP's major crime and historical case unit, said cold case investigators regularly ponder that possibility. "If we see two people going missing from a similar area, or two people who have a lot of similar characteristics going missing from an area of course, we look at those to see if there's any commonalities.

"We do keep looking at it. And we hope to prevent any serial offenders from operating."

Det.-Sgt. Brent Shannon, in charge of cold cases for the Regina Police Service, says there are "unique circumstances" in each of the city's 11 outstanding long-term missing persons cases. In recent years, they include Danita Faith Bigeagle, a 22-year-old last seen in February 2007 on the 800 block of Victoria Avenue. Two years earlier, Melanie Geddes, 24, never came home after going to a party Aug. 13, 2005, in the 900 block of Robinson St. Her remains were found four months later in the Qu'Appelle Valley near Southey. Her death is now an unsolved homicide.

In the wake of those disappearances, plus five-year-old Tamra Keepness vanishing from Regina in 2004, the provincial government created a province-wide strategy in 2005 for missing persons, including money for officers who focus on those cases.

"You can always compare and draw some similarities, but to say there's a pattern, we don't feel that at all, not in Regina, not even on a provincial level," says Shannon.

The disappearance of another young woman, Amber Redman, in that same time frame provided the impetus for Anderson's class. A month after Geddes vanished, 19-year-old Redman disappeared after leaving a Fort Qu'Appelle bar. Three years passed before she was found when her killer unwittingly led undercover RCMP officers to her remains on a nearby First Nation.

Spotting a missing persons poster for Redman in 2005 and thinking "not another one," Anderson decided to develop her class providing a global perspective on missing indigenous women, showing Canada's experience is not unique, and helped organize an international conference in Regina last year that focused on the issue.

"If you're going to recognize that brown-skinned women go missing more often than those who are not brown-skinned, then you have to ask the question of how does race play into this," she says. "Why are they targeted? What are the messages that we hear from our media, from our government, from our police. What are the stereotypes and biases?

"Obviously the First Nations and Metis populations have suffered from the past of residential schools, so there's a higher percentage that are in poverty. But the idea that they're all taken because they're involved in a high-risk lifestyle is not accurate at all. And there's often that assumption or inference," says Anderson.

"If they are in a high-risk lifestyle, why are they in it? That points to our abysmal treatment and conditioning, and so a higher percentage of people in those high-risk (activities) means there's going to be more taken. My other question would be, 'Well so what if they're in a high-risk lifestyle, what kind of statement is that that we think that makes it OK then for it to happen, and that a sex trade worker's life is of less value than anyone else's life?' That's a pretty sad look at the world. It's kind of a way to dismiss it, and to distance ourselves from it: 'Well they were asking for it. It's not going to hurt me, so why should I be concerned about it?' It's kind of a way to disconnect from the sadness, the horror of it."

Anderson doesn't want students leaving her class thinking the blame lies with any one group or thing.

"It is the structure of how we think and we have to challenge that at every level and understand that if you hear a story and you flip the channel because it doesn't affect you, then maybe we need to think about how do we see community?"

In the words of Stevenson, "One missing person is too many."



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

Updated: August 21, 2016