Snow fell heavily in the early morning on Jan. 1 1997 as Dianne Stewart, a Syilx woman from the Penticton Indian Band, left a New Years Eve party on foot.
She often walked the same path back and forth, up and down the hill from her community to her residence at the Stardust motel, in the City of Penticton.
“I talked to my mom that night. She wanted to celebrate New Years with me. I was young at the time and had other plans,” says Dianne’s oldest son Clayton Stewart.
When Dianne Stewart didn’t show up at home the next day, her friends and family began to worry.
“I was expecting her back and all her friends were calling me asking me where she was. I just assumed she was with them,” says her youngest son Bob Frezie who was 17 years-old and living with his mom at the time.
“I was the one who made the missing persons report,” Frezie remembers, sitting at his oldest brother Clayton Stewart’s kitchen table.
It wasn’t until May 7 of the same year that Dianne’s body was found by a community member who came across her remains while horseback riding.
“She wasn’t found too far from the party. She was found up behind the band office,” says Frezie.
“Ms. Stewart was last seen walking West on Westhills Drive wearing a black leather jacket, black jeans, and winter boots,” says Cst. James Grandy, media relations officer for the RCMP wrote in an email. “Through a forensic autopsy, it was determined that Ms. Stewart died as a result of foul play.”
There has been very little information about the murder, the family says.
The family is still asking for answers. They, like many other families who have lost a mother, daughter, sister, aunty, friend, loved one, want closure.
Clayton Stewart’s wife Elizabeth Lysons says the best way to deliver information about the murder would be through Crimestoppers.
“Then the local police will have to answer to the B.C. homicides,” she says.
Dianne was missing for just over five months before her body was found. It was a time her sons call “unbearable.”
“I felt paralyzed. She was missing and I’d go to a store and run into people and they’d be like, ‘I’m sorry Clay,’” Clayton Stewart remembers. “You always had this hope that she was still around.”
Clayton Stewart and Frezie spent those long six months together, often at their mom’s house, waiting for answers. They thought she might come home, they say, as they listened to the helicopters above searching for her.
“I remember Bobby and I were at her house — we would be there for days,” says Clayton Stewart.
“We were so lost, we were just looking out the windows.”
The family has a hard time coping with the loss of their mother, aunt, and friend. Dianne Stewart is remembered as a soft-hearted quiet woman. She would show all she came across that “everybody needs love,” they remember and “she had a lot to spare,” Lysons shares.
Her big heart and soft ways made Dianne Stewart a mother to many.
Frezie says she took in most of his friends growing up and loved them as she loved her own children. Many of his friends called her “mom,” he remembers.
Moving from the Stewart family home, Frezie led the group to his mother’s gravesite, nestled in the woods by a calm flowing creek, which Frezie says was one of her favorite spots.
“She was like my Mom too,” says Lance Joe as he heated up by the fire. Joe was one of many friends that Dianne Stewart had treated like a son. “She was really a wonderful woman.”
Dianne Stewart’s unanswered death is a small yet significant part of what the 2019 National Inquiry Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) calls “a form of genocide.”
In the MMIWG final report Rebecca Moore, a l’nu woman from the Kjipuktuk district of Mi’kma’ki, said Canada has failed to value the lives of Indigenous women when the women go missing or are murdered.
“Being an Indigenous woman means living under a society and ‘civilization’ that benefits from your voicelessness, invisibility, disappearance, non-existence, and erasure,” writes Moore.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett promised a national action plan would be announced by June 3, 2020, the one year anniversary of the report’s release.
In May, Bennett said the plan has been delayed due to COVID-19.
While Indigenous Peoples make up just over five per cent of the population in Canada, they make up 27 per cent of those murdered, according to the 2019 Stats Can report.
“Since 2014, when reporting of this information began, Indigenous victims have accounted for approximately one-quarter of all homicide victims each year,” reads the StatsCan website.
“It’s a racist racist system,” Lysons adds, saying that victims in the crisis are often treated as criminals just for being who they are.
A woman of wisdom and love
After leaving the gravesite the family gathered together in the home of Candace Baptiste, Frezie’s children’s mother, the family began to tell more stories after sharing a home-cooked meal together.
Joe remembered one time when he was younger and all out of cash.
“I didn’t have any money on me,” he says, as more stories are freely shared across the table. “I stole a chocolate bar…and mom caught me.”
She asked Joe where he got the chocolate bars from, he remembers, to which he replied, “I stole them.”
“Hey! You better go bring that back there right now,’” Joe laughs, remembering the lesson.
Joe did as she asked and returned the chocolate bar, as well as an apology.
“I never stole again,” he says.
Dianne Stewart’s family wants answers about what happened to the mother of many. They say they will not give up on her.
“She was just robbed of this, she was robbed of all of this,” says Baptiste, motioning to her children, Frezie and Joe, “Life with the kids. I just try to help the best I can.”
Baptiste pleads for anyone with any relevant information about that cold New Years night to come forward. Along with the rest of the family to please come forward if you know, “Anything, even if it’s the smallest thing,” she asks.
In the meantime Dianne Stewart’s growing family of 13 grandchildren and three great grandchildren will continue to honour her life, they say.
“Life is fragile, you got to be careful and look after the people you love,” says Clayton Stewart.
If you have any information about any of the missing or murdered women please call Crimestoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).