A First Nations woman from Saskatchewan knows firsthand what the families of the victims of an alleged Winnipeg serial killer are going through.
Peggy Daniels told APTN News the loss of her niece, whose remains were found at an Alberta landfill in 2014, had a devastating ripple effect on her family.
The 26-year-old, Courtney Breanna Johnstone, was murdered eight years ago.
“She was found dismembered and in the landfill in Grande Prairie (Alta.),” said Daniels, whose voice still shakes when she recounts the horror.
“She’d been restrained in a home and they found out she had been sawn in pieces and thrown in the trash bin, and then the garbage trucks cleaned out the trash bins, so they found as much of her body as they could in the landfill.”
Daniels said her niece was working as an escort and police say she had been on a call with a man when he claimed something went wrong.
“That by the time he realized what happened, he panicked and the only thing he knew was to try to get rid of her. But, yet, they found her clothes and her purse and her phone in his possession still when they caught him.”
Shane Gregory Babitsch, 21, was charged with first-degree murder in 2014. He was sentenced to six years in prison in 2016 after pleading guilty to manslaughter and indignity to human remains.
Daniels had been a steadfast presence at missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls marches, vigils and court appearances.
And it was while participating in one of those walks in February 2014 with her sister – Johnstone’s mom – that police called to say they located her niece.
“Her mom – because of the effects of all this – is no longer with us. We were doing a walk (in Saskatoon)…for missing and murdered Indigenous women and the police called and said that they had found Courtney’s remains.”
Daniels said she has since lost another niece from the fallout of losing Johnstone, whose cause of death was never determined.
“No matter what type of lifestyle somebody lives – she was cared about.”
As for the investigation, Daniels has nothing but praise for the Grande Prairie RCMP.
“They did an amazing job up there,” said Daniels, a member of Mistawasis Nehiyawak First Nation 70 km west of Prince Albert, Sask.
“They had the community all help. By the time they found out where she was, they had motor homes parked at the landfill, they had 24/7 police there, the search units, they didn’t stop. Like they didn’t stop looking ‘til they found her.”
RCMP said the search of the Aquatera Waste Management site was helped by the records kept by the landfill.
Daniels said the people who take the lives of Indigenous women don’t realize what they do to a whole family.
“When Courtney went missing, it was a white man that took her, and it was devastating. And now? Our people are taking our people, like our own,” she said. “We were raised to be there for each other, to protect each other.
“I know my family and my reserve; you look out for each other, and against all odds you’re there for each other. I wish there was a way to say this is what you do, this is how you fix it.”