By Barry GerdingBLACK PRESS
It would ease our hearts and provide some comfort of closure.
That is how the father of one of three First Nations women who went missing in 2016 describes the uncertainty hanging over their family — questioning why their child disappeared but not getting concrete answers as to what has become their fate.
The three women — Deanna Wertz, 46, Caitlin Potts, 27, and Ashley Simpson, 31 — have all gone missing in the North Okanagan-Shuswap area during 2016.
“We don’t know what happened,” said John Simpson, the father of Ashley.
“There is no closure for us, none. It’s going on 10 months now and are no further ahead in finding her since when she disappeared.
“Every day, every minute, every hour we try our best to get on with our lives, but it’s pretty hard to get on with our life when your mind is somewhere else,” said Simpson of wondering what happened to his daughter.
Roberts was joined by other family members to assist with the initial search effort.
“I want to get whatever information I can out there to help find my daughter. What else would you expect a father to do?”
The RCMP investigations for all three cases are ongoing but police have offered no further comment other than to reiterate there remains no apparent connection regarding their disappearances.
For his part, Roberts says communication with the RCMP has now reached a stalemate — “they have told me nothing since I said whatever information they could give me I could put up on social media to help the investigation.”
But he plans to carry on. Limited financial resources forced him to return him to St. Catharines, Ont. after the initial search for Ashley, but he plans to return in the spring.
He has continued to keep the story of his missing daughter alive in the local media back in Ontario and is working with a group pushing for financial support from the federal government for parents without the financial means to cover the travel costs to seek out a missing child in another community.
“Her three other sisters and we as parents are all pretty much living in limbo with Ashley missing. We’re all pretty sure at this point she is probably deceased. We have sort of let that take over our minds a little bit,” Roberts said.
“But there is still hope she might have been kidnapped, or living in a cabin in the woods somewhere. You hear about those kinds of things quite often so you just never know.
“Knowing what happened to her would ease our minds, not ease our hearts, but ease our minds.”
For Chief Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, Roberts’ frustrations are further examples to him of why the greater First Nations community has lost faith in the RCMP.
Phillip, who assisted with the initial search efforts to find Potts, calls the RCMP’s efforts to finding a growing list of missing indigenous women “dismissive, condescending and almost very abrasive.”
His comments harken back to what has been deemed the Highway of Tears murders, a series of murders and disappearances of aboriginal women along the 720 km section of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert between 1969 and 2011.
Because Highway 97 connects with Highway 16, the RCMP have included it as part of the investigative territory.
A special unit formed by the RCMP officially linked 18 such cases between 1969 and 2006 to Highway 16 and two connecting arteries. More women have vanished since then, and community activists and relatives of the missing say they believe the total is closer to 50. Almost all the cases remain unsolved.
Phillip says commitments from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the last federal election campaign to add more resources to the Highway of Tears investigation have fallen by the wayside, adding he’s not satisfied with Trudeau’s establishment of inquiry, set to cost $40 million, on the matter.
“Are you kidding? There have been public platitudes but that’s about the extent of it,” Phillip said.
“I think as times goes on, you will see more search efforts organized by indigenous communities themselves when women go missing.”
Charlene Belleau, chief of the Esk’etemc First Nation, whose territory stretches from north of Williams Lake across the southern Interior to the U.S. border, was also actively involved in the initial search efforts for Potts.
Belleau said she did so because the area falls within the Esk’etemc band territory.
“Caitlin is from Alberta but the point was she went missing in our territory and we wanted to step up and help the family find closure,” said Belleau.
She said in 2015, hereditary chiefs around the province accepted a commitment for their communities to live violence-free and work to stop violence against women.
Belleau said that commitment is also about assisting ongoing search efforts to might provide clues for investigations carried out by police and others.
“We are the ones who know our territory forestry roads, our back roads, our creeks and our land, so the least we can do is help with search efforts rather than just sit back and be angry with the police,” she said.
“The responsibility for stopping violence against women in our communities starts with our own leaders. We are committed to do this and be part of finding a solution…we need to be proactive,” Belleau said.
She added another search effort is in the works to look for Potts, which will likely be carried out at some point this summer.
Randy Ermineskin, chief of the Ermineskin Cree nation, also participated in the initial search efforts in part to support Caitlin’s mother Priscilla, a band member.
“It’s really close to home to us,” said Ermineskin last year, noting there are 29 missing women from their First Nations community.
“The key to all of this is we need to protect the women. They are the life blood.”
Missing person investigations in the North Okanagan Shuswap region are among 22,000 missing person files created over the past year, a number that also reflects multiple missing person files on the same person.
Those investigations are overseen by the B.C. Police Missing Person Centre, an administrative arm of the RCMP based in the Lower Mainland, aligned with one full-time coordinating officer in the B.C. southeast district headquartered in Kelowna.
Sgt. Joanne Callens, with the missing person centre, says numerous changes, starting with the creation of the centre in 2004, have been instigated concerning missing person files, including a new B.C. Police Standards missing person investigative procedure manual adopted last September.
Those procedures include how police interact with relatives of missing persons, communication links between the missing persons centre and both RCMP detachments and municipal police forces across the province.
Callens said contrary to what many people think, there should be no hesitation in reporting a person missing.
“I’m not sure where that idea has developed that you have to wait for a period of time before reporting a person missing,” said Callens. “Whether it is 15 minutes or 15 days, there should be no delay in reporting it.”
She says even if a public missing person report is made in a jurisdiction outside of where the person was last seen, such as in Vancouver for a Kelowna or Penticton related case, the case is immediately opened.
“Unfortunately, that has happened in the past where someone was told to call another number and the information doesn’t always end up getting relayed,” Callens said.
“One of our main guiding principles now in these cases is no delay. If a missing person report is made, it is immediately forwarded to the appropriate jurisdiction if necessary.
The time element is critical, Callens saying “the quicker we know the better.”
She said while social media offers more information tools to help investigate why or where someone disappeared, such investigations remain challenging for police to pursue.
“Nothing makes a police officer happier than to tell someone their missing loved one has been found safe and alive. And on the other side, it’s pretty heart wrenching to have to relate that a missing person has been found deceased.
“But it is always an active investigation as no file is closed until the person is found.”
Sgt. Annie Linteau added that investigations are updated online, through RCMP website missing person postings and through media stories in hopes of finding fresh leads to ongoing investigations—sometimes files are even transferred to different investigative officers to bring a fresh perspective to a stalled case.
“We do whatever we can to generate leads to find someone,” Linteau said. “Through the passage of time, you never know what information might make someone remember something they hadn’t thought of before.”
It’s an attention to administrative detail that Callens feels B.C. is at the forefront in how missing person investigations are carried out.
“It’s gotten so much better in the last few years. Through this evolution I really do believe that other provinces will begin to emulate the procedures we have put in place here in B.C.”
But sharing information still has its challenges – from parents not feeling comfortable bringing up shady aspects of a child’s lifestyle, to police not providing investigation updates to family members or the media for fear of jeopardizing the missing person or the investigation.
“Sometimes it can be difficult to talk about, if you have had trouble with someone or a person is struggling with issues, but often it is that kind of information which will lead to why a person is missing and where they might be,” Callens said.
Anyone with information about these or any other missing person cases in the region is asked to call the Enderby RCMP detachment at 250-838-6818 or North Okanagan -Shuswap Crimestoppers at 1-800-222-8477.
Caitlin PottsLast seen: Feb. 22, 2016Age: 27
Caitlin Potts was originally from Alberta and moved to B.C. in the fall of 2015.
She was reported missing to Vernon RCMP on March 1 after friends and family had not heard from her in eight days.
In a public plea for help in finding her daughter, her mother Priscilla Potts said last summer her daughter’s disappearance was totally out of character.
“We believe that someone must have information about Caitlin and perhaps know where she is right now,” said Priscilla in a statement to the media at the time.
Codi Potts, Caitlin’s sister, told CBC News last June that the morning she went missing, she left a message for her saying she had found a ride to Calgary on Kijiji.
Codi said Caitlin had been involved in a rocky relationship, together on and off for two years, prior to her apparent decision to return to Alberta.
Deanna WertzLast seen: July 19, 2016Age: 46
Police have said that Deanna Wertz, from the Enderby area, went for a walk on the morning of July 19 somewhere around a wooded area where she lives on Yankee Flats Road and hasn’t been seen since.
Wertz is described as an avid hiker and was known to venture out on lengthy walks.
Ashley SimpsonLast seen: April 27, 2016Age: 32
In the initial weeks following Ashley Simpson’s disappearance, searches were conducted in the Yankee Flats and Silver Creek, particularly focused on the Yankee Flats property where Simpson had been living in a travel trailer with her boyfriend, Derek Favell.
Brent Cox, who owns the property where Simpson had been living, told the Salmon Arm Observer last year that Simpson and her boyfriend had a fight about money on April 27 and Simpson had texted Favell to say she was leaving.
Cox said Simpson had indicated she wanted to return to Ontario to work with her father, but didn’t have the financial means to get there.
Simpson has not been seen or heard from since.
A police search of the area where Simpson was last seen and following up on other leads has so far come up empty.