The families of four missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are speaking out about the police mishandling of their loved one’s cases across British Columbia.
On Oct. 4, Amnesty International Canada held a virtual press conference where relatives of Tatyanna Harrison, Chelsea Poorman, Noelle O’Soup and Ramona Wilson shared their experiences of police negligence, discrimination and lack of accountability regarding the women and girls’ investigations.
The media event coincided with Sisters in Spirit, an annual vigil held across Canada to honor and remember Missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people (MMIWG2S).
“I hope we can reach a point in our justice system where cases like these get solved instead of brushed under the rug, because one person decides a human being doesn’t deserve a proper investigation,” said Natasha Harrison, who is the mother of Tatyanna Harrison.
“The police handling of Tatyanna’s case came with many flaws,” she added.
The 20-year-old Cree and Métis woman was reported missing on May 3. The day before, on May 2, an unidentified woman was found on a yacht in Richmond, B.C.
However, it wasn’t until three months later in August that the remains of the woman found on the yacht were confirmed to be Tatyanna’s.
Harrison said the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) “seemed to miss this connection of the body found on May 2 and the missing person filed on May 3.”
She also spoke of multiple other police issues surrounding her daughter’s case, including initially pushing Tatyanna’s file to Surrey despite recently moving there and being spotted twice in Vancouver shortly before she was reported missing.
The young woman was later found to have died from fentanyl toxicity and RCMP deemed her death as non-suspicious and closed the case, despite being found without pants or underwear.
Harrison said it’s now up to her to solve her daughter’s case.
“Due to these lack of resources, you have put me in a position to investigate my own daughter’s disappearance, creating an unnecessary trauma and suffering for not only me, but all those who are helping along the way,” she said.
It’s much the same for Sheila Poorman, the mother of Chelsea Poorman.
Poorman described her daughter as someone who liked to help others and an animal lover.
The 24-year-old woman from Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan was last seen in downtown Vancouver around midnight on Sept. 7, 2020.
Her body was later found on an abandoned property in Vancouver on April 22, 2022.
Her mother questioned how her daughter, who had a physical disability stemming from a car crash, was able to scale a fence into the property. Poorman’s death has also been deemed non-suspicious by VDP.
Poorman said police were reluctant to speak with family at first and were slow to put her file on a missing person’s website while other cases received attention, among other things.
She said she’d like to see a bylaw stipulating that abandoned or unoccupied houses should be checked for missing persons.
“(The police) need to be doing a better job for families of Indigenous women that go missing,” she said.
Josie August, a relative of Noelle O’Soup, also shared her concerns.
The 13-year-old member of the Key First Nation in Saskatchewan was reported missing from a group home in Port Coquitlam, B.C., in May of 2021.
O’Soup said the young girl, who had developmental disabilities, was labelled as a runaway.
Her body was found alongside an adult woman in an SRO, or single room occupancy unit, near Vancouver’s East Hastings Street on May 12. VPD said it’s unclear at this time how she died.
August said there was a lack of communication from police while the young girl was missing and an Amber Alert was not issued despite her disabilities.
“There has been little to no communication with family on updates on her case, and it makes us feel as if they did not care about Noelle to them. She was just another missing Indigenous teen.”
August also spoke about how Van Chung Pham, a man in his 40s occupying the room, had been found deceased in the unit earlier this year in February and his body was removed. However, O’Soup and the woman’s bodies weren’t discovered until three months later.
VPD said in a statement that between 1994 and 2007, Pham, a Vietnamese national, was convicted 13 times as a result of VPD investigations, and at the time of his death he was wanted Canada-wide in connection with a Vancouver Police sex crimes investigation.
August said she has more questions than answers around her relative’s death.
“She was a 13-year-old Indigenous youth in care who had disabilities. How was she found dead in a 46-year-old man’s apartment? How did she get unnoticed? How did she get there? How did they not smell or detect two bodies if (Pham) had priors to this?” she asked.
“This has impacted the family of a 13-year-old girl who should be at the mall, being a teenager – not found dead on the downtown East Side in a 46-year-old man’s apartment dead who had previous offenses.”
More than 28 years after the disappearance and murder of 16-year-old Ramona Wilson, her sister Brenda Wilson says their family is still searching for answers.
Described as a “joy” to the family and youngest of six siblings, Wilson was last seen in June of 1994 in Smithers, B.C., trying to catch a ride to go to a graduation party.
Her body was later found in April of 1995 near the airport in Smithers.
Wilson said there’s indications Ramona hitchhiked, and her case has been linked to the Highway of Tears – a 725 km stretch of Hwy 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert, B.C. where a number of women have gone missing or found dead.
She added police involvement has been lacking throughout the years. At one point, she said police even told her family the teen might have left to take a break from her family.
“I still can’t believe that comment,” she said.
“It’s just so disheartening when you think after all these years of being an advocate for (MMIWG2S),that things would’ve changed with the process of assisting the cases of our Indigenous women and girls. But as we see today and as we hear the stories of all these families, nothing has changed.”
In Ottawa, a few hundred people including family members, senators and MPs gathered to share their support of families who have experienced violence.
Among them was Megan Gallagher’s family. The Métis woman went missing in Saskatoon in 2020. Her body has not yet been found – but police did locate human remains in an area where they were searching for her.
Eight people have been charged in relation to her disappearance and death – two for first-degree murder.
Under the sunshine on Parliament Hill, her father Brian shared a poem called Megan where are you?
“I sent you a text, they’re saying your phone is dead. Baby girl where are you? People are asking about you?” he said those gathered.
With the case around his daughter changing by the moment, he commended the families for their efforts.
“I just want to make a remark on your 17 years and what you are doing is having an impact because the words are getting out there,” he said.