ESKASONI, N.S. — The entire We'koqma'q Mi'kmaq First Nation in Nova Scotia is breathing a sigh of relief, Chief Rod Googoo said Saturday, after an Indigenous girl who had been missing for more than a week was found safe.
RCMP said the 14-year-old was found safe, along with the man she had been travelling with, after the force's air services unit spotted the pair in an isolated part of Cape Breton.
Googoo said dozens of community members had been searching for the girl since Aug. 13, when she was last seen at a gas station in Eskasoni, N.S.
"I think there's a great sense of relief for even the whole of Cape Breton," Googoo said in an interview Saturday morning.
"We're quite relieved that she was found safe and alive — that was our main concern."
The RCMP said they spotted a fire in an isolated location in Canoe Lake around 11:30 p.m. Friday. The girl had earlier went missing from her foster home and was believed to be travelling with a 47-year-old man she knew.
"The RCMP officers made it to that area and were able to locate the missing girl and the man," said Cpl. Lisa Croteau.
The force said both individuals were taken into custody and the girl was later released.
Croteau said no charges had been laid as of Saturday evening.
"The investigation is ongoing and we should have more information regarding charges on Monday," she said in an email.
Police said Thursday they had received new information that the pair was spotted Wednesday night near Canoe Lake on a green ATV.
Albert Toney, a member of We'koqma'q Mi'kmaq First Nation, said he had planned to head out Saturday morning to continue the search for the girl.
Toney was among several volunteers who had over the past week scoured a large area crisscrossed with roads and four-wheeler trails where the pair were believed to be.
"There was a lot of fear and anxiety within the community," he said Saturday.
"I was pretty happy when I woke up this morning to the news that she was found."
Toney added that questions persist as to why the RCMP did not immediately issue an Amber Alert when the girl first went missing last week.
"When something like this happens to our community or any First Nation community, seems like we're always put on the backburner for some reason," he said.
The RCMP was heavily criticized for only issuing a localized alert for the girl a week after she disappeared.
The Native Women's Association of Canada said police did not act with enough urgency to find her, and thousands signed a petition to have the RCMP issue an Amber Alert.
Croteau said the force stands by its decision, noting the case did not meet the provincial threshold for an Amber Alert because police did not believe the girl was abducted.
Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said Saturday the RCMP and local police should be commended.
"Words can't express how I feel and maybe now we can sleep tonight in peace knowing that she's safe and sound," Whitman said in an interview.
She said she was happy the girl did not become a statistic, referring to the disproportionate number of Indigenous women and girls who have been murdered or gone missing across Canada over the past several decades.
"We have to take the positive out of it, and the positive is (she's) safe.... She's safe, and everyone came together at the end in a unified group effort," said Whitman.
The We'koqma'q chief and council had offered a $5,000 reward in an effort to spur information that led to the girl's whereabouts.
Googoo said that without the efforts of community members, the story could have ended very differently.
"If it wasn't for the fact that my community and the neighbouring Mi'kmaq communities (did) step in and help us out, I think there would have been a totally different outcome," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Aug. 22, 2020.
— By Jillian Kestler-D'Amours in Montreal and Liam Casey in Toronto
The Canadian Press