Dateline, Vanished: Canada’s Missing Women


BERNICE CATCHEWAY, MOTHER:  And that smile just makes my day. Just makes me happy. Because that was her.

JENNIFER CATCHEWAY:  Merry Christmas… Happy New Year.

It's been nine years but Bernice Catcheway still thinks of her daughter every waking moment. That love is present in everything she does.

BERNICE CATCHEWAY:  We always believe that somebody knows something. We've always said that. Women, girls, they don't just go missing. Somebody stole them from us.

In the past decade, thousands of Canada's Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing. Their stories have gone from a dark secret to front page news.

BERNICE CATCHEWAY:  Lord, we ask you for guidance today.

But today the Catcheways are focused on one mission. Each year, when the snow thaws, the search for their daughter, Jennifer, starts again.

BERNICE CATCHEWAY:  This last dream I had, I heard her voice. Woke up. And I told my husband, I said, "I heard Jennifer. I heard her say “Go towards the river."

WILFRED CATCHEWAY, FATHER:  There were screams that morning when she went missing. There were screams.

BERNICE CATCHEWAY:  There was a note on the table that said, "I'm going to visit my cousin Vernan. I'll be back. Put my ice cream in the fridge."

REPORTER:  When you saw her walking away that was the last time you saw her?

BERNICE CATCHEWAY:  That was the last time I'd seen her.

For almost a decade the Catcheways have combed thousands of kilometres, searching for Jennifer.

BERNICE CATCHEWAY:  What we're going to do is scoop it, put it down and go through the debris. It's very tedious work. Smelly, stinking, but it needs to be done.

REPORTER:   So when you're sifting through, what are you looking for?

BERNICE CATCHEWAY:   Bones, cause it's not going to be body parts now. That is nine years, so we're looking for bones now. Sounds horrible I know. We come to believe that we're closer more than ever in finding Jennifer, because of information we've received.

The search for Jennifer is made possible each year with the help of family and fundraising. Canada has a dark epidemic of missing First Nations women like Jennifer. As an Indigenous reporter, I'm here to listen to their stories. I'm invited to the Catcheways' family barbecue.

REPORTER:  Hi, everyone.

BERNICE CATCHEWAY:  This is Laura from Australia.

Despite the laughter here today, it's clear that pain is never far away.

WILFRED CATCHEWAY:  People don't realise what we go through. People don't know. People don't care. Some of them don't care. They don't care.

Wilfred and Bernice are living every parent's worst nightmare.

REPORTER:  I see you've got her on your phone there?

BERNICE CATCHEWAY:  Yeah. She was loved, Jennifer was loved by us all, you know and she didn't deserve whatever happened. She didn't deserve it.

In this vast rural landscape, Jennifer's body could be anywhere, but Jennifer is one of many. Thousands of Indigenous families like the Catcheways are going through the same agony. Official police reports state between 1980 and 2012, almost 1200 Aboriginal women went missing or were murdered.  But the Native Women's Association of Canada claim the number is closer to 4,000.

In 2015, PM Trudeau announced a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. In Australia, we're facing a similar epidemic of violence against Indigenous women.

NAHANNI FONTAINE, MANITOBA MLA FOR ST JOHNS:  I call upon the Federal Government to hold a royal commission into the countless homicides, acts of violence and sexual abuse perpetrated against this country's most marginalised.

So what can we learn from Canada's experience?

NAHANNI FONTAINE:   So, if you are a serial killer or even if you're not a serial killer and you are misogynist, you want to kill women, who are you going to target?

First Nations politician Nahanni Fontaine has been supporting families of missing and murdered Indigenous women for years.

NAHANNI FONTAINE:  There was such inaction in respect of files for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that people thought they'd kill with impunity.

NEWS READERS:  We're learning more about the 15-year-old girl found murdered in Winnipeg over the weekend. 
On Sunday, police pulled Fontaine's body wrapped in a bag from Red River.

It took one case - the death of this 15-year-old schoolgirl, Tina Fontaine, to really make the country stop and take notice of Canada's black eye. Tina was raised in this house by her great aunt Thelma.  She loved playing with her young cousins and wanted to be a social worker.

THELMA:  Oh she was an awesome little girl. She was always so happy. Very, very good in school. She was smart.

Tina had recently started secondary school. As a reward for good grades, she went on a trip to visit her biological mum in Winnipeg. Within a month she was reported missing and one night was picked up by police.

THELMA:  Her name came up, red flagged that she was missing. But they still, she was intoxicated and they still let her go. And she didn't even look to be 15. She looked to be about 12 years old.

Soon after, she vanished.

BRITTANY GREENSLADE, GLOBAL TORONTO:  16 months after the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was pulled from the Red River, Winnipeg police have made an arrest.

DEPUTY CHIEF DANNY SMYTH, WINNIPEG POLICE SERVICE:  Raymond Joseph Cormier has been charged with second degree murder in the death of Tina Fontaine.

In 2018 Tina Fontaine's alleged killer will face trial.

REPORTER:   Compared to some of these thousands of cases that we're seeing around Canada, Tina's case has made an impact.

THELMA:   That’s what I don't understand why it had to take Tina's death to open up everybody's eyes.

Unlike many other Aboriginal families, Thelma has some sort of closure. But that doesn't make her grief any less raw.

THELMA:  My girl was going to be something. She was going to make something of herself of her life, but she did it in death. She opened the doors for everybody..

NAHANNI FONTAINE:  So Tina Fontaine, what her murder did was it galvanised really the whole country. You're planting seeds in the consciousness of Canadians and you're planting seeds in the consciousness of the police. And then all of a sudden here was this little baby, who physically was so small, looked so fragile, was literally put in a garbage bag and thrown into the river. And all of a sudden it's like in that moment all of those seeds that had been planted over the last 20 years, all of a sudden they just sprouted and everybody all of a sudden got it.

REPORTER:  When the police actually started investigating Tina's murder, did you think they would find who did it?


REPORTER:  Why not?

THELMA:  Because there's so many Aboriginal women that are still missing. Considered murdered. And I thought I was going to be in that group where we would never get the answers.

Stories of police inaction in the cases of missing Indigenous women and girls are all too common. Jennifer's dad Wilfred, has given up his job as a drug and alcohol counsellor, dedicating all his time to the search for his daughter. He spends his days and nights in this shed, adding to this ever-growing web of evidence, tips and rumours.

WILFRED CATCHEWAY:  Nine years I've been working here 24/7, and trying to piece together a puzzle regarding my daughter, Jennifer.

REPORTER:  When did you actually first start working on all of this?

WILFRED CATCHEWAY:  When my wife, when I found out the police brushed off my wife and so I went on my own and I told my wife then that I think we're on our own, I told her. So I did my own time frame and I got footage of the people that I interviewed.

REPORTER:  How many interviews do you think you've done?

WILFRED CATCHEWAY:   Well, over 1,000. 4,000 people that I have spoken to. Yeah.

Jennifer's cousin and uncle may have been the last people to see her alive. They told Bernice they dropped her off on a highway in the middle of nowhere. What happened after that no-one has got to the bottom of.

BERNICE CATCHEWAY:  I went to the police and the young officer there, I said I wants to report my daughter missing. "When did she go missing?" I said I heard from her Thursday and I haven’t heard from her since. He asked how old was she? I said she just turned 18 on Thursday. He said, "She's on a drunk. Just give her a week." That's what he said. I said, "You don't even know her. You don't know her to talk like that."

REPORTER:  Do you think it had anything to do with racial stereotyping?

BERNICE CATCHEWAY:  It seems that every native is, you hear comments that they're no good for nothing, they're bums, they are nothing but drunks, low lives and...

WILFRED CATCHEWAY:  All that stuff. An officer's job, that's his obligation to, you know, take a statement and he didn't do that. Instead he made a judgement call. You're Aboriginal. She's just out partying. She is on a drunk. You know. Goodbye. Who cares?

REPORTER:  We've heard a number of stories, including the Catcheways, where they've gone to report someone missing and the police haven't taken action. They say the police told them to come back in a week that they might be out drinking. The families believe this could only happen to Indigenous people?

SUPT. JEANETTE THEISEN, MANITOBA RCMP:  What I can tell you is that I personally have spoken to that investigator that the Catcheways have made that allegation against. That investigator has stated that he never made that comment. That investigator himself is an Indigenous officer.

It's clear there's two versions of events, the police's version and the Catcheways' version so it's hard to know what was really said. But Bernice claims the police failed to take action soon enough.

REPORTER:   What are you doing to combat racism in the Manitoba RCMP?

SUPT. JEANETTE THEISEN:  We have online mandatory courses for not only racism, but Aboriginal awareness for officers and conduct. So members that members are aware that there is ramifications for any sort of behaviour that would, you know, if a member is racist, we wants to know about it immediately because we wouldn't tolerate it.

REPORTER:  Manitoba has one of the highest numbers of missing and murder Indigenous women. Why do you believe that's so?

SUPT. JEANETTE THEISEN:   I think it's the exploited persons, they leave their remote communities. They come down to a big city and I really believe that they fall victim or prey to the lifestyle of a big city and a society, not only just police, we have to be better and give them some sort of support. Because I do feel, I think they get lost when they come to the city.

I've come to the city of Winnipeg. It's a hot spot for violence against Indigenous women. It's on these streets that Tina Fontaine and many other Indigenous girls met their end. The problem has got so severe this community patrol has taken it upon themselves to comb the streets looking for missing women and girls.

JAMES FAVEL, CO-FOUNDER BEAR CLAN:  This is the north end of Winnipeg, we're 75% Indigenous here. Poverty's high. Violence is high. Addiction is high.

It's Saturday evening and I join James Favel and the Bear Clan to patrol the streets of the north end of Winnipeg.

JAMES FAVEL:  They said they were having problems with squatters here so they asked….

The work of this Indigenous patrol is hands on filling the gaps in policing in one of Canada's most notorious neighbourhoods. Once a criminal, James is now a community hero.

JAMES FAVEL:  I'm a trucker by trade. Before that I was a bouncer for almost 10 years. University educated in the '90s. Four times convicted felon by the time I was 34. And when Tina Fontaine's body was found, that's when I had enough. My wife, my family, my community, they all wanted more so we were thinking about more boots on the ground, a direct approach.

REPORTER: So it was kind of born out of a case of murdered and missing women really?

JAMES FAVEL:  Absolutely. oh yeah, in response to violence against women, 100%. Hello. We have fruit and we got liquorice.

Part of their role is to check up on the many vulnerable women in the community. James takes me to meet Vanessa, one of the sex workers the Bear Clan checks up on regularly. Vanessa grew up on an Indigenous reserve but ran away at 13. Once in the city her life followed the same trajectory of many young Indigenous girls, trying to survive on the street. She's been in the sex trade for more than a decade.

REPORTER:  Why were you running away from the reserve?

VANESSA:  It had a lot to do with family issues. A lot of stuff happened as a kid. I grew up with a lot of the sickness that came along with the residential schools and stuff. That was passed on from generation to generation and the sexual abuse and the drinking and stuff.

REPORTER:  Have you ever had any bad customers?

VANESSA:  Yes. I have.

REPORTER:  Can you tell me about them?

VANESSA:   I was raped and stabbed in 2007 I think.

REPORTER:  Do you hear about other women who you know who are on the streets as well who have experiences like that?

VANESSA: I know a lot of murdered and missing women, my friends. Claudette Osbourne was one. I knew a lot of the girls.

REPORTER:  How many of the girls do you know who have gone missing?

VANESSA:  I know them all pretty much.

It seems everyone I meet knows someone who is murdered or missing.

JAMES FAVEL:  This is where the exploitation happens.

As night falls, James takes us to a different part of the north end, an industrial area.

JAMES FAVEL:  They used to go missing from here and this is why we're here.

REPORTER:  Why this area?

JAMES FAVEL:  It's dark and desolate.

JENNIFER:  Hi. Hi. Nice to meet you. I'm Jennifer.

As I stand with her, cars circle like sharks.

REPORTER:  Are you out here all night tonight?

JENNIFER:  I was going to stay until I could possibly get at least $20, just to get some milk in my fridge and some coffee or whatever.

REPORTER: It's pretty cold out here to be standing in the cold?

JENNIFER:  I'm going to put my sweater on.

JAMES FAVEL:  It’s cold in the wind.

JENNIFER:  So you guys are from Australia?

REPORTER:   We are from Australia, yeah..

JENNIFER:  That's the place I'd love to visit ever, if I could. I just want to go home and go to sleep actually. My sweater's wet too. Not too bad.

It all goes back to this kind of colonial narrative of Indigenous women being less than and worthy and disposable. Sex workers are incredibly vulnerable and accounts for many missing women but they aren't the only victims. What is common to all the women's stories I hear in Canada is that growing up with the inequality and discrimination that comes with being a First Nations woman can be enough to put you in harm's way.  So right now the Missing Persons Unit has gone into the house behind us?

OFFICER:   She’s approaching the Chevy. She has given him directions to meet her over there.

Jennifer and Vanessa, like many Indigenous women, are originally from First Nation reserves, far from the city centres. I'm heading out to Sagkeeng First Nation, a self-governing Indigenous community about an hour and a half's drive north of Winnipeg. Out of more than 600 First Nation Reserves  across Canada, Sagkeeng has one of the highest numbers of missing or murdered women.  Now I want to find out why.

The community has invited me to their meeting place, Turtle Lodge.

REPORTER:  My name's Laura. I'm a First Nations' journalist from Australia. My people are the Ngiyaampa Weilwan people of Northern New South Wales.. A bit about myself - my family, my dad grew up on a reserve in Australia. Reserves are a bit different I think in Australia from here. All of you have lost someone. Firstly, I wanted to hear about your experiences reporting people missing or murdered to the police?

REV. NANCY BRUYERE, AUNT OF CRYSTAL DORIE:  My niece was murdered 2.5 years ago. I feel like there's so much unanswered questions that the police could have did more, because her fingernails were broken, she had some bruises and yet they said that she died by suicide.

JANET BRUYERE, GRANDMOTHER OF FONESSA BRUYERE:  We went to the police and a few things happened to her. They told me that she was stabbed 17 times and I never got anywhere after that.

It's overwhelming to hear so many heartbreaking stories in this one room. The most shocking comes from Isabelle Fontaine, whose sister Sharon was killed by Canada's worst serial killer, pig farmer Robert Pickton.  Robert Pickton may have killed up to 49 women before he was finally caught by police.

ISABEL FONTAINE, SISTER OF SHARON ABRAHAM:  They couldn’t find her and they said it was if she was a prostitute, an alcoholic and you know.

REPORTER:  So they said they wouldn’t look for her because they thought she was a sex worker?


REPORTER:  You know they said that?

ISABEL FONTAINE:  And how they found her was through Dakatia's fingernail, DNA.

REPORTER:  Where was that found?

ISABEL FONTAINE:  At the Pickton farm. They said she was tortured by the pigs, the pigs ate her and all they found was the fingernail.

Just under half of Canada's 700,000 people with registered Indian status live on reserves.

CHIEF KEVIN HART, MANITOBA REGIONAL CHIEF:  There is racism in the police...

Chief Hart is working with the inquiry, travelling around Manitoba. He takes me through some of the social issues that lead to the shocking statistics.

CHIEF KEVIN HART:  You can go into any home and there is 15, 20 people living in a house. You don’t have to go too far from here where, you know, we have people living in homes that are condemned. There's no proper infrastructure.

The problems here, such as overcrowding, poverty and lack of resources, are strikingly similar to many Indigenous communities I've seen back in Australia. Chief Hart says these conditions force women and girls out of their homes and into danger.

CHIEF KEVIN HART:  And you know they get caught up and everything. They get caught up in social problems that are up there. We're seeing how our women and men are going missing because of that.

First Nations people here and across Canada carry a heavy load, with poverty, discrimination and generations of dispossession. It leads to a kind of multi-layered trauma that Indigenous people in Canada and Australia live through every day.

Winnipeg police say they're working hard to be part of the solution. Here, there's a small specialised unit of police dedicated to solving the mystery of this city's missing women.

REPORTER:  How many cases of missing women are you usually dealing with at any one time?

DARRYL, WINNIPEG POLICE SERVICE:  Everyday we have between 120 to 150 missing person cases.

REPORTER: How many of the cases if you had to guess would be Indigenous women?

DARRYL:  I would say at least 95% of the cases.

Over 60% of children in First Nation reserves live in poverty. It's one reason many Indigenous girls end up in foster homes in cities like Winnipeg. Darryl's unit spend a lot of their time searching for the girls who run away. Once found, they try to find a safe place for them. Right now the missing person's unit has gone into the house behind us. They are going to ask for questions of the people in there about a young person who is missing.

REPORTER: What can you tell me about the young girl that we've just picked up?

MATT, WINNIPEG POLICE SERVICE:  She's a 16-year-old. She's Indigenous. She's starting to appear more on our radar as child in care that's running away on a regular basis, concern about her starting to get into alcohol and drugs and possibly dating older men, possibly. So lots of concerns there for sure. We're worried about her, 16 years old and, you know, we worry about her.

Darryl's unit is also responsible for monitoring the city's rampant sex trade. These women are referred to as exploited women, rather than sex workers. To recognise that being on the streets is usually not a choice. In 2015, Canada introduced a national law, making it illegal to buy sex. Instead of arresting the victim, the police now arrest the paying perpetrator. These men are called Johns.

DARRYL:  We started this in 2015, when we formed the team. Actually before the legislation changed, we realised that we couldn't just arrest away the problem.

But it's a complicated situation, arresting Johns may keep the women safer but doesn't help their poverty trap.

REPORTER: So with the Johns that you are trying to target, are they men that have been violent?

DARRYL:  No, we get all varieties. We have identified men who this is their first time out here. They've never done it before, to the ones who are possible suspects for homicide investigations.

She is heading up to the intersection corner and crossing over to the eastside.

Waiting silently in a car nearby, we watch a transaction being made.

DARRYL:  She’s up to his vehicle here now. She is approaching the Chevy. Were you able to talk to the female?

MATT:   No I believe 13 was able to track her down, stand-by I’m just trying to get a hold of her.

DARRYL:  She is saying the male in the truck offered $40 to get laid, copy.  What’s going to happen is we're going to process him right in the back seat there. They'll tow his vehicle. They'll be here for a bit.

REPORTER:  In Australia, we don't really arrest people for picking up sex workers. Do you think that's the right approach?

DARRYL:  So this way we control the safety for the women and control the predators that are utilising the trade.

REPORTER: You say that in Canada you've had this national awakening. In Australia, Indigenous women are actually similarly overrepresented in homicide statistics and in violence as well. We have horrific rates of violence. What can you tell us about what we can do to have that national conversation to actually wake people up to the violence that's happening in our country?

NAHANNI FONTAINE:  You know, this conversation is occurring in Canada because of, and fundamentally hands down because of Indigenous women's courage. It is not easy to talk about the sexualised violence that you've experienced or the colonial violence or the physical violence or the mental violence, it's not easy to discuss that, and yet Indigenous women have been very open and honest and courageous in doing so.

Families across the nation are sharing their stories to commissioners from Canada's national inquiry. In October this year, the inquiry came to Winnipeg, 88 families testified, and 50 missing women's stories were heard, including the Catcheways.  Before I leave Canada, I meet up with Jennifer's family again, they're still digging through the rubbish tip.

BERNICE CATCHEWAY:  My husband said, he was watching the back hole and he said, "Is that where my daughter is? Is that where they're going to pull my daughter out of? Nobody wants to pull their daughter or children out of a garbage dump, nobody wants to do that. What we're doing is allow you to come into our hearts and videotape our hearts and minds, I hope it helps somebody out there and give them hope too. Should they have lost a loved one, never give up, never ever give up. Never, ever give up. Look for them. Search for them and you'll find them, you know.

Native Indigenous people are resilient. We're strong. We're strong people. That's just our nature. That's the way we were created. We're not a weak people. We're strong. We've been put down and stepped on for so many hundreds of years but we came back up and we're strong people.

The Catcheways did not find Jennifer this summer but they're not giving up. Next year, as soon as the snow melts, they'll try again.

BERNICE CATCHEWAY:  We'll get the job done. We'll get it done.

If you or someone you know is affected by the issues raised in this program, support is available.

WOMAN:  She said I wants to become a mother. I want to become a mum, which never happened.

laura murphy-oates

story producers
kylie grey
ana maria quinn

joel stillone

story editor
micah mcgown

original music
vicki hansen

21st November 2017


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