'People will not have a choice to forget': Electronic billboard to display MMIWG cases

'People will not have a choice to forget': Electronic billboard to display MMIWG cases

Sindy Ruperthouse. Maisy Odjick. Shannon Alexander.

The faces of these three Algonquin women flash on an electronic billboard along the side of Highway 105, the main road that runs through Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg in western Quebec — a permanent reminder that they are still missing and their families are still searching for answers.

"Hopefully, somebody will see that and say, 'You know what, I know something,'" said Maisy Odjick's mom Laurie Odjick.

"It's a good thing we see their pictures because they're still out there and we're still raising awareness. But as family members, there's that sadness that comes along with it."

Olivia Stefanovich/CBC

Odjick, 16, disappeared with her friend Shannon Alexander, 17, on Sept. 6, 2008.

The pair was supposed to be going to a dance the night they vanished. Their belongings were found at Alexander's house the next morning in Maniwaki, Que., the town north of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg.

Now their images are enshrined on a new electronic billboard that was unveiled this week in front of the tribal council office — one of the first results of more than 100 commemorative projects funded through the $92 million National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Commemoration fund honours lives of Indigenous women and girls

The billboard will display known missing and unsolved homicide cases. It also will act as an alert system for the entire region, displaying amber alerts, notices of disappearances and reports of unsolved murders.

Christian Patry/CBC

In response to feedback from the inquiry's interim report, the federal government set aside $13 million in early 2019 to honour the lives of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA individuals (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual) victimized by violence, said a spokesperson for the minister of women and gender equality.

The money has all been allocated now — to fund a memorial totem pole on the Highway of Tears in B.C, legacy tipis featuring traditional teachings in Manitoba, healing gardens in Newfoundland and other educational campaigns and therapeutic initiatives across the country.

An Indigenous external review committee, composed of survivors, family members and advocates, reviewed applications for the minister's approval.

"I think they will be effective because it doesn't give us the choice to ignore anymore," said Qajak Robinson, a former inquiry commissioner who attended last Wednesday's ceremony in Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg for the new billboard — the first event she's attended to inaugurate a project from the commemoration fund.

"People will not have a choice to forget. People will always know that Maisy, Shannon and Sindy are missing and their families need answers. We all carry this responsibility." 

Supplied/Johnny Wylde

The billboard is one of two recently installed within Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council territory that will serve as perpetual reminders of the burden Robinson said everyone shares.

The signs cost $50,000 each.

The second sign is in Pikogan, four hours north of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg in northern Quebec, the home community of Sindy Ruperthouse. Her father, Johnny Wylde, said he hopes it help bring closure to a painful chapter for his family.

"The people have to see that," said Wylde, pointing to a photograph of his daughter on the screen. The billboard also includes information about calling in tips and a possible $40,000 reward.

Awaiting a meaningful response to the national inquiry

Ruperthouse was last seen at the hospital in Val-d'Or, Que., in 2014 at the age of 44.

The way police handled Ruperthouse's case led Quebec to launch an inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people in the province.

There haven't been any arrests in connection with her disappearance, but the Sûreté du Québec is treating her case as an active homicide investigation.

"We don't know what happened," Wylde said. "Every morning, every day, we try to know what's going on."

Christian Patry/CBC

It's been eight months since the release of the inquiry's final report. Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls say they are still waiting for meaningful action.

A spokesperson for the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations, which is taking the lead on the federal government's response to the inquiry, said Canada did not wait to act.

Since the Trudeau government was elected in 2015, said a ministry spokesperson, it has overhauled the Indigenous child welfare system, passed legislation to preserve Indigenous languages, established higher maximum sentences and a reverse onus at bail for repeat offenders of domestic assault, eliminated gender discrimination under the Indian Act, supported a review of police policies and practices and provided health and support services to survivors and families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, including LGBTQ and Two Spirit people.

"Our government is working to end the ongoing national tragedy of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls," said a department spokesperson.

"We have been working to develop a national action plan to address the issues identified in the Calls for Justice. This plan will be rooted in and will address the unique needs, experiences and cultural contexts of, Indigenous peoples and communities. It will also represent the diverse regional perspectives and needs of communities across Canada."

An official update from the federal government on how it's responding to the inquiry's 231 Calls for Justice is expected in June.

Many major recommendations have gone unfulfilled, including a call to launch a national police task force that would attempt to break down the silos between Canada's police services to review and, if required, re-investigate files of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

It could also help police respond to disappearances and violence more efficiently by tracking human trafficking routes. 

"I would like to see more," Robinson said. "I think that we all have to keep collectively demanding more."

Indigenous women accounted for nearly 37 per cent of female homicide victims in 2018, according to Statistics Canada. The figure marks an 11 per cent increase over 2014.

Continuing the search 

Behind each statistic is a woman and behind each woman is a family.

Wylde is not giving up hope of someday finding his daughter. For the past six years, he has travelled across Quebec looking for traces of her. He plans to start his search again this summer, deep in the bush.

"You have to do something, not stay at home and wait and wait," Wylde said.

For immediate emotional assistance, call 1-844-413-6649. This is a national, toll-free 24/7 crisis call line providing support for anyone who requires emotional assistance related to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. You can also access long-term health support services such as mental health counselling and community-based cultural services through Indigenous Services Canada.