Frank Gruben: The night he went missing

Family, friends, and community members tell APTN Investigates what led up to Gruben’s disappearance.

This story is part one of an APTN Investigates series into the disappearance of Frank Gruben. It discusses missing persons and emotionally difficult events. If you’d like to talk to someone after reading this story for any reason, you can call the Hope for Wellness line at 1-855-242-3310.

On the night of May 6, 2023, two days after his 30th birthday, Frank Gruben vanished without a trace from the town of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories.

“It’s nothing our family would ever wish upon anyone,” says Frank’s younger brother Steven Gruben at the family home in the remote Western Arctic community of Aklavik, N.W.T. “It’s devastating to try to live every day without my brother.”

There are currently 80 active missing persons cases in the NWT with Frank’s being the most recent, according to the RCMP.

The RCMP say they have exhausted all their leads on the case – but their handling of the investigation has drawn criticism from the community, including from Frank’s family.

“We don’t have any more time to waste,” says Steven, “a lot of us need the closure.”

Frank Gruben, Indigenous language learner & respite worker 

Frank Gruben
Frank Gruben working on Gwich’in language radio program in Aklavik, NWT. December 2017. Photo courtesy: Franz Krause.

Born and raised in the remote Gwich’in and Inuvialuit community of Aklavik, N.W.T., Frank was an active and well-known member of his community.

“He was always outgoing, he had so many friends,” his mother Laura Kalinek remembers. “Cooking and sharing his food and having friends come over and he always did very well in his Gwich’in language.”

A love for language and culture that Frank passed on through his work as a respite worker with the NWT Disabilities Council and while speaking his traditional language, Dinji Zhuh-Gwich’in in radio programs, in addition to reading to children in Gwich’in over the Internet.

“My brother was always encouraging, always just jolly,” says Steven. “Regardless of the state of mind, he made sure to let us know that he loved his siblings.”

Frank’s mother says he was particularly passionate about supporting his siblings, especially his younger sister Kimberlyn, who has autism and Down Syndrome.

“He really enjoyed looking after Kimberlyn,” says Kalinek. “He was teaching her sign language and everything. “Frank was always there, and he was a really big help to our family,” she added.

In the summer of 2022, Frank made the decision to travel south to the town of Fort Smith, N.W.T. for upgrading at Aurora College. When he left, it would be one of the last times that his family would see him.

“When he told me he was going to move to [Fort] Smith, I was excited for him,” Kalinek remembers. “But we didn’t know he was going through such a hard time. And if we knew that, we could have probably prevented it.”

Gruben ‘one of a kind’ say friends 

APTN Investigates travelled to Fort Smith to speak with some of Frank’s closest friends and classmates.

Virginia Kotokak, originally from Tuktoyaktuk, first met Frank in 2012 while they were both attending Aurora College’s Inuvik campus. She moved to Fort Smith to finish school and raise her two children there.

“He’s one of a kind,” she says. “He enjoyed studying. He wanted to get into social work, he was super excited.”

Frank was a regular at Kotokak’s house, spending time with her young family. In fact, she was one of the first people to sound the alarm when Frank stopped responding to her daily check-ins.

Like so many who were close with Frank, not knowing what happened to him is heartbreaking and debilitating for Kotokak and her children.

“They understand he’s missing and they’re struggling themselves because they were close to Frank too, and they just want him home as much as I do,” she says.

“This is not right. This is my friend, how a person could go missing in such a small community of 2500 people, like out of nowhere, missing?”

In the months since his disappearance, Kotokak has passed along any information and tips she’s received to the RCMP and has been searching on her own while also working full time.

“I just don’t want to give up on him, I’m not going to give up hope,” Kotokak says. “I need to find him and bring them home to his family, his family needs him more than ever, and he needs to be at home. I just won’t give up on that.”

Frank Gruben
Virginia Kotokak and Anne Jackson didn’t know each other until they volunteered to search for Frank. Now, they’re friends. Photo: Karli Zschogner/APTN.

Anne Jackson met Frank at Aurora College in Fort Smith as a returning student. She says, they connected right from the start, as Frank was the only Indigenous student that introduced themselves in their language.

“He was such an outgoing and kind person,” Jackson remembers. “He was so welcoming, and just a super individual with people.”

Jackson says that it’s important for northern students to look after each other and Frank soon became a regular visitor to her house as well.

“I always told the students, whenever we hang out, or whenever they come by the house, to always watch over each other, take care of each other,” Jackson says. “I’d tell him, ‘the door’s always open.’”

According to Jackson and Kotokak, the transition from a small community to college life was difficult for Frank.

On Dec. 5, 2022, Frank was evicted from his residence at Aurora College over noise complaints. At the time, he was staying at the campus’ dorm-style Breynat Hall – a repurposed former residential school.

“When you’re struggling with a roof over your head, a place and stability, it eventually falls back on your education,” Jackson says. “Eventually, Frank started missing more classes and ended up not coming back to school which personally angered me as a student and as a close friend of Frank’s, because I really don’t want these young people to fail in school.”

Jackson says it’s a challenge faced by many students coming from smaller communities.

“It’s the struggle with students coming in from the north that really needs to be looked at,” Jackson says. “So they’re not failing, and they’re not getting kicked out of their dorms.”

According to Jackson and Kotokak, Frank had tried to find accommodations, including posting on bulletin boards, but it’s hard to find housing in Fort Smith.

“He couldn’t get a one bedroom to rent anywhere here in Smith,” says Kotokak.

Both women say they also tried to help Frank negotiate with Aurora College.

“He didn’t have luck,” Jackson remembers.  “They wanted him to be employed in order to rent a room in town. And I was like, ‘well, that’s not fair, he’s getting money, he could pay rent.’”

Jackson even offered to have Frank stay in her student residency apartment, but says she was denied by Aurora College.

“I was told, if a student gets kicked out of their residency, I’m not allowed to take them in,” Jackson recalls. “It’s against policy. So, in my head, I was like, so we’re just going to leave them homeless? It just doesn’t make sense, especially during the wintertime when it’s cold.”

APTN asked for comment from Aurora College. In July, acting president Jeff O’Keefe confirmed that Frank was no longer a student when he went missing on May 6. He also stated members of the college community have cooperated with the RCMP investigation.

In multiple follow-ups, Investigates asked representatives of Aurora College to confirm the existence of a policy that forbids students from taking in other students who have been evicted from College housing. As of publication, the College has not yet responded to these requests, and APTN has not found a copy of the policy online.

Jackson explained to APTN that after being told she could not take Frank in, he began to drift from place to place.

“When you become homeless, you become desperate and destitute to have a roof over your head,” Jackson says.

“He just went house to house,” Kotokak confirms. “He always had these bags with them, with clothes.”

“He was – he was always calling myself or Virginia, when he needed help,” Jackson recalls. “It didn’t matter what time it was. If he didn’t have his phone, he was borrowing someone else’s phone and he’d reach out and we were always there to pick him up.”

‘He’ll find a way …  It’s not like him to not contact us’

The last time Anne Jackson saw Frank was on May 2, 2023 after he spent the night at her home.

“I remember the last time he came over,” Jackson recalls. “He said he had to go do something downtown, so we jumped in my truck. He took a last selfie with me and my little one.”

A day later, on May 3, Virginia Kotokak invited Frank over to watch the hockey playoffs. It was the Edmonton Oilers versus the Vegas Golden Knights.

“He was so excited too, because his birthday was the next day, and we just kind of celebrated that a little bit,” she says.

But the next day, messages to Frank on his Facebook messenger accounts went unanswered.

“I don’t hear from him. I’m like, ‘Hey, are you okay? Like, what’s up?’ And he never responded,” Kotokak says.

Other people she reached out to, including Jackson and Frank’s mother Laura Kalinek, also say they hadn’t heard from Frank.

“He’ll find a way, he’ll phone, he’ll text, he would always ask me to pick them up and come here every day or every other day,” says Kotokak. “It’s not like him to not contact us.”

RCMP confirm that Frank Gruben was last seen walking on McDougal Rd and Field St. on the evening of May 6 by several witnesses and by security cameras from Joseph B. Tyrrell Elementary School.

This footage was provided to APTN by the RCMP:

On the evening of May 8, Anne Jackson called Fort Smith RCMP.

“Eight minutes after 10 o’clock, I thought to myself, ‘to hell with it, to hell with this.’ Picked up the phone and dialed the police number,” says Anne. “The police know Frank. If Frank didn’t have a place to go, the police would bring him to my home, and I’d let him in.

“That’s when it became a missing-persons report.”

Coming up, Frank Gruben: Inside the search

Contact Crimestoppers to submit a tip anonymously by phone at 1-800-222-8477, or online by clicking on the “Submit a Tip” button at

You can also call the Fort Smith RCMP detachment directly at 1-867-872-1111.

If after reading this story you’d like to talk to someone for any reason, you can call the Hope for Wellness line at 1-855-242-3310.

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