Personal Story – “Heather” – Part I

I received a “page”, seventeen years ago, that irritating incessant beep which kept repeating every few seconds. The message was always a phone number to call and receiving it implied by its very nature a sense of urgency. In some messages the phone number would be followed by a -911, to further underline the urgent request, which was the case in this instance.

As a member of the Serious Crime Section of Surrey RCMP Detachment, it usually meant that there had been a death, or somebody was barely hanging on, closer to death than life; and that it was likely violent, but above all else, that it was somehow “suspicious”.

It was 10:15 pm, on October 1st, 2000 when I got the page from my Sargent in charge of Serious Crime, Mel Trekofski and he in turn asked that I call to “partner” with me that night, Constable Chris Drotar, also a member of our Serious Crime Section.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, this particular page would change our lives, it would alter our perceptions of man’s inhumanity to man, and it would test our physical and mental abilities to a limit that we likely didn’t feel possible at that time. And thankfully, it would not be often repeated through the course of our careers.

We knew from the initial information that a girl had gone missing, a 10 year old girl, in fact.  Her name was Heather, and she was the daughter of Patrick Thomas who lived at the address. It was a little discomfiting to learn that she had in fact gone missing around 5:30 that afternoon. Already we would be starting with a time disadvantage, which in our world can sometimes mean the difference to success or failure.

The mother, Jodie Thomas was estranged from Patrick and lived in a different part of Surrey and would not be at the house.

Heather and her brother were at their fathers in Cloverdale,  as part of that common suburban divorce dance of shared custody. It was his week-end, but this was Sunday, and the kids were due back at Mom’s. But then things changed.

Search and Rescue had been and were still involved, along with all the neighbours who lived in the complex. Nothing of significance had been found as of yet, but the officers who were in attendance felt that “Dad” was acting strangely, and it was for that reason that we were being called; to interview Dad. The implications were obvious and unstated.

It was a typical October night, wind slighting blowing, leaves beginning to fall but not yet in full decomposition, coloured, but still clinging to the trees. We were asked to attend to Unit 26 at 17722 60th Avenue, in the usually quiet suburban area of Cloverdale, part of the not so quiet City of Surrey, B.C.

As we arrived in the dimly lit complex it was quickly noted that directly across the street was the Cloverdale Fairgrounds and the Racetrack. This was a Sunday, and on this particular day the expansive parking lot during the afternoon became a massive flea market involving hundreds of people. At the time of Heather’s disappearance there could have been thousands within a few hundred yards of the housing complex.

The wood construction of the worn town homes showed the usual green tinge along the edge and rooftops, mold that comes with incessant rains. It was an older complex, u-shaped so you could drive in a semi-circle and go out the other side.  It showed no signs of recent care, just the wear of years of  many children, a complex of about 50 units, who through its life was mostly populated with single parents and young couples starting families. Blue collar, trying to make ends meet, with a tinge of a criminal underbelly always found skirting the edges of poverty flecked neighbourhoods.

As we arrived,  it was quiet, as the people of the complex had by now retreated into their individual homes, no doubt staring out from behind partially closed kitchen venetian blinds.  Almost all had been searching for Heather around dinner time, all likely knew that she had not been located, so one can imagine the variety of explanations given to curious children as they got ready for bed that night.

As we drove up to the residence, with that usual mixture of adrenalin and apprehension, we were fearing the worst, but not quite prepared for that being the case.

The greeting uniform officers, who were unusually quiet, told us that they had searched the residence thoroughly, which is the first place to look for a child. Dad’s vehicle was parked out front, and it too had been searched with nothing found.

Inside the town home, it was like hundreds of others I had been in; some worn furniture, some new, usually a prominent t.v. and the usual evidence of active children. Right at the door, in clear view, was a knapsack, clearly a girls adorned with the usual hanging customized knick knacks which signalled that a girl owned and cherished it. It was in a position clearly in anticipation of heading out of the residence. It was clearly Heather’s and clearly untouched from hours before.

Chris and I introduced ourselves to the father, who sat in the living room, emotionless, wearing jeans and a collared shirt. Blonde, and blue eyed, of average height and build, a good looking man, he was staring straight ahead, saying little, no tears, no anger. There was little in his eyes, which is almost always the giveaway.  Nothing in his composure which indicated a reaction to  the most hellish of torments for a father. So, it was quickly apparent what the original attending officers thought was “unusual”.

I asked Dad if it was o.k. if we conducted another search of the residence, and his vehicle and he quickly and quietly agreed. He did not question why we were being this thorough. I also asked Dad if he would come to the police office, where we could take a statement, which he also readily agreed to, with no questions.

So at quarter to one in the morning, we sat in the interview room with Pat, whose demeanour remain unchanged.

Pat’s story was this.

Pat had been working on some carpentry in his residence. The two kids, Heather and her 8 year old brother Chris had asked around 4:30 to go out and play around the complex while they waited to go to their Mom’s. He said yes, but told them that they had to be back by 5:30 so that he could keep to the proscribed schedule.

Around 5 Chris came into the house, but without Heather, and Pat told him to go get his sister so that they could get ready to leave. Chris went out, could not find Heather, and came back a few minutes later saying exactly that.

Showing the usual parent frustration, Pat packed up and went out into the complex.  He began looking, talking to the various kids and parents as to whether they had seen Heather. It was learned after a short time from some of those parents, that she was last seen riding a 2- wheeled bike that she had borrowed from one of the other children.

A few minutes later, the borrowed bike was found, but no sign of Heather.  According to one witness, the bike tire was still spinning when they found it, near the front of the complex, in a parking stall on its side.

After we finished the interview around 2 in the morning, we were still just as confused as to Dad’s reaction, or more accurately, his non-reaction. Throughout he was totally co-operative, but he never mentioned the proverbial elephant in the room, which was whether we suspected him as doing something to his daughter. He just answered our questions, calmly and without hesitation.

We left the room, and dropped Pat back at the now growing Search and Rescue group on the Cloverdale Fairgrounds.  Still somewhat unsatisfied about Pat, however, we had come to one conclusion. The time-line, both drawn by the original officers, the neighbours, and our interview we felt excluded Pat from being involved. The circumstantial evidence did not leave any room or time for him to commit what would be an unthinkable act. Granted we were leaning on some years of experience and training, and trusting our judgement. Not always a comfortable feeling. And we were about to alter the scope or focus of an investigation as a result. If we were wrong, with the stakes this high, with the focus both within the police and the public that only a 10 year old girl victim can generate, it would be a decision that could haunt or taunt us for the rest of our lives.

In our opinion, we believed that Heather had disappeared, silently, although surrounded by thousands of possible witnesses.

Statistically, if this was a “stranger” abduction as we feared, the chance of Heather being alive was minimal, as too much time had passed since her disappearance. We also knew that there were only a couple of probabilities in terms of motive as to why a young girl is abducted.

If the suspect was not a family member, which was now our investigational theory, then we were now in our own personal criminal investigational nightmare. We were now looking for the needle in the haystack.

To be continued…….

Photo Courtesy of the Surrey Leader newspaper, a picture released to the public during the Search for Heather.




National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls –an inquiry???

Missing and Murdered Woman Image

So here we go again.

Since Confederation, Canada has embarked on over 450 inquiries or commissions. So one would think we should be somewhat expert on the makeup and conduct of these inquiries.

In Canada we seem to have developed an obsession with navel gazing; an obsession to examine and study all contentious issues often delaying any real change.  It is often the political route of greatest convenience, playing to a particular audience, in the hope of postponing structural change, or at least delaying it till it finally eaves the headlines and goes to the back pages.

An inquiry by its very definition means an investigation. To be effective, a normal expectation, is  that this “investigation” will be impartial and balanced. So what can we expect, especially in terms of the police investigational front.

One will remember that this latest inquiry was spurred by a Liberal election promise from Justin Trudeau and the seemingly ever increasing demands of indigenous group to visit the issue of murdered and missing women and girls. Defining what the indigenous groups see as the root goals, or why such an inquiry will be helpful,  are often obscure, but seem to always revert to a call for an ill-defined form of “justice”. What results will appease this request may be intangible in the end, but that is the goal.

The government estimates that this newest inquiry will cost $53.86 million.

This does not include $16.7 million that the Department of Justice will provide “to increase the number of “culturally-responsive services for indigenous victims and survivors of crime” and to establish the new Family Information Liaison Units (FILU’s) in Provincial and territorial victims services offices, to assist families and loved ones of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. These new units will apparently help families to find the information they seek from various agencies and services (including police, prosecutors, social services, child protection services and coroners) and they will communicate this information to the families in a culturally grounded and trauma-informed manner”[1]

It is difficult to measure what a “trauma informed manner” means or how it would be different than others in any victim services office which already in most circumstances have an aboriginal court worker.

So the grand total will be $70.56 million.

This is not the first time we have had such an inquiry dealing with Indigenous issues, from August 1991 to November 1996 there was the longest running royal commission ever;  the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. That inquiry, at that time spent a staggering $60 million of public funds, and thus was the most expensive royal commission in Canada’s history for the time. The sad thing is that despite the length and the monies, nothing of any note seems to have come of it and very little reference is ever made to it.

So this newest inquiry with half the time of the last one,  may go on to bear the distinction of it becoming the most expensive inquiry to date.

It has not been without opposition. Former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, during the election, said that there was no need for further study; so of course in 2015 the Liberals and the NDP were pushing and promising that if they took office, they would conduct a National Inquiry.

At the time Harper had rejected calls for a formal inquiry saying enough studies have been done and that crimes should be investigated by the police. He went on to say during a year end interview with the Globe and Mail that “we have dozens of reports on this phenomenon, including pretty comprehensive reports from the RCMP, and others, on the nature of the crimes involved”.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said that Harper by stating that another inquiry was not on the top of his to do list, called his comments “condescending, disgusting, and racist” and that they underscore the “dire need for a national inquiry”.

How saying that he didn’t feel a need for another inquiry due to all the previous reports is “rascist” seems to defy explanation, but it is a charge  which indigenous groups seem to have no problem in going to, especially in the current political environment.

It should be pointed out that after the Conservatives loss, and now in opposition, these same Conservatives have now had a change of heart, and now feel it prudent to be in favour of the inquiry as well.

This inquiry, as the title implies,  is to look into murdered and missing women and children.  So we may ask, what in general terms is the scope of this issue. What are the actual numbers that come under this heading.

In total numbers, between 1980 and 2012 there have been a total of about 1200 files, although some indigenous groups estimate it is much higher and say the measurements are not taking all the factors into consideration.

So when the issue began to become a political football, in 2014,  the RCMP conducted a National overview of Aboriginal homicides, and then provided updates to the data in 2015.

The major and central complaint of the indigenous groups is that the police and the government in general do not pay attention to these issues and therefore many investigations are incomplete and unsolved, or did not receive the requisite attention.  So lets look at this issue. According to the RCMP report:

“The overall solve rate for female homicides occurring in RCMP jurisdictions for 2013 and 2014 was 82%. Homicides of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women had similar solve rates of 81% and 83%. A solve rate of 81% for homicides of Aboriginal women indicates that 26 of the 32 homicides recorded in 2013 and 2014 have been solved. 

Relationships between the offender and victim for 2013 and 2014 showed a trend similar to that found in the 2014 Overview (1980-2012). Offenders were known to their victims in 100% of solved homicide cases of Aboriginal women, and in 93% of solved homicide cases of non-Aboriginal women in RCMP jurisdictions in 2013 and 2014. Current and former spouses and family members made up the majority of relationships between victims and offenders, representing 73% of homicides of Aboriginal women and 77% of non-Aboriginal women in RCMP jurisdictions in 2013 and 2014.”

They go on to state:

“The updated data reflects that 9.3% of unsolved Aboriginal female homicide and missing persons cases captured in the 2014 Overview have since been resolved. In 2013 and 2014, 32 of 85 female murder victims in RCMP jurisdictions were Aboriginal – more than a quarter of the total number. Missing and murdered Aboriginal women continue to be overrepresented given their percentage of the Canadian population.

The update revealed the unmistakable connection homicides have to family violence. Most women, regardless of ethnicity, are being killed in their homes and communities by men known to them, be it a former or present spouse, or a family member. Prevention efforts must focus on stopping violence in family relationships to reduce homicides of women, and we are moving forward with many initiatives on this front.”

One cannot deny the data. These are the facts. The vast majority of aboriginal women are killed by persons known to them, be it spouse or not, and the vast majority of these cases are solved and charges are laid.

(If you read the previous blog you will see that in the general population the police have a 48% solvency rate in 2016).

The report does show that there is little doubt that the aboriginal women are over-represented in terms of the overall population as they only represent 4% of the population. However this is not a policing problem, this is a political and cultural problem.

One would think that the facts of  that this would seemingly  throw some water on the constant talk that indigenous murders are ignored or not investigated properly. [2] Apparently not.

In terms of our expectations of a balanced and fair investigative inquiry.  Who are the Commissioners that are going to conduct this inquiry, and how do they interpret their mandate.

They state that they are to “examine and report on the systemic causes behind the violence…by looking for patterns and underlying factors that explain why higher levels of violence occur”. To “examine the underlying historical, social, economic, institutional and cultural factors that contribute to the violence”.

The “commission will examine practices, policies, and institutions such as policing, child welfare, coroners, and other government policies/practices or social/economic conditions”

They are then to recommend:

“concrete actions to remove systemic causes of violence and increase the safety of ….recommend ways to commemorate missing and murdered indigenous women and girls….and provide its recommendations to the government of Canada by November 2017 and a final report by November 1, 2018”.  (They also suggest you go to their website if you have any ideas on how to commemorate these murdered women.)

Of course in B.C. it was only in 2012 that we also had  the Commission of Inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Women, which was presided over by Justice Wally Oppal who produced a 1148 page report with 63 recommendations, at a cost of $10 million. It was a report that addressed the policing issues as well and outlined several recommendations in how to improve the system in particular with regard to the missing persons reports. Oppal said in reference to this new inquiry,

“Before we start embarking on a national inquiry, we have to ask ourselves what will we learn from an inquiry- and I don’t think that there’s anything more that we can learn”.  He thought that the national inquiry could easily go to $100 million in terms of the overall cost.

Any inquiry can also be defined by its process, which can come in two forms. One is an evidentiary type process where there is an open and public review of important issues and events, events which would otherwise not come to light.

The other possible purpose of an inquiry is to be more of an information gathering forum to expose persons to the issues and generate public discussion. If this is the preferred method then one would have to believe that indigenous issues, whether it be education, funding, or residential schools, is not something that has been discussed or been the subject of any previous inquiry.

Although it would be difficult to argue that indigenous issues are in need of more public exposure, nevertheless this will be the  format followed by this group. This inquiry has  stated that it is not going to be a “courtroom” thus not an evidentiary inquiry that we would normally envision. So we are in for an information gathering program where all that appear before it will be accepted as fact and not questioned.

As to the Commissioners themselves, it would seem to be common sense that any inquiry and the persons conducting it have a degree of impartiality, and to achieve a balance in measuring the evidence should have different backgrounds and expertise. It is unspoken but it needs to be somewhat independent from government and impartial and not represent a particular held view.

This inquiry has named five commissioners; all of whom, although highly educated and experienced in the academic and legal indigenous issues, are all of indigenous descent. Furthermore and more incisively all of these commissioners have been gainly employed by the legal and justice system representing the indigenous perspective.  If this inquiry was on the fishing industry, would it seem right that all the commissioners of inquiry would be fishermen? Of course not. However, they expect us to believe that they will be impartial and not have an agenda.

The Justice Minister, who will eventually accept their report is also of aboriginal descent and in a rather short legal career also worked on behalf of the indigenous people. Can we expect her to look at the results of the inquiry with impartiality?

(Believe it or not, this heavily weighted group is not enough for some indigenous groups who have complained that none of the five are Inuit or from Manitoba.)

So we have a biased indigenous supportive group, with a broad mandate, and an enormous budget now embarking on at least a year of gathering “evidence” or testimony from indigenous people. And in their own words, don’t expect the traditional “western courtroom”. The goal apparently is to “incorporate indigenous customs to the process”. “Evidence” can come in the form of “…traditional story-telling, poetry or art”. Clearly there will be little or nochallenge made to the narrative provided by the indigenous groups. [3]

This will not be as once hoped an inquiry into the real issues of poverty, lack of education, drug and alcohol abuse, or living in isolated circumstances. Nor is about the third and fourth generation of the indigenous people living on a reserve welfare style system sapping both their pride and their culture.

What are we going to get? Hours upon hours of unchallenged oral history of abuse and neglect, hours and hours of discussion of the Residential schools, colonialism, and the ensuing various forms of cultural abuse.

In the end there will be a long list of recommendations, some of which will be impossible to complete, all of course needing further funds; for further reconciliation, more counselling and education, separate schools and medical systems to name a few. I suspect that these commissioners who are already fully versed in the indigenous perspective for all these matters could probably  write the report now.

They with little doubt will recommend:

“make prevention of violence against aboriginal women a genuine priority”

Call for further “police accountability” and “improve police in missing person policies”.

Oh sorry, those were already the recommendations from the Oppal Commission.

Of course, there has to be the token kicking of the police and much made of the odd police case where the missing persons investigation was not done thoroughly. As I write this, the RCMP Federal watchdog the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission recently reviewed the police actions in the northern communities. Interestingly it stated that the police policies are “outdated”, “records are incomplete” and “supervisors failed to provide guidance” (that I would not ever take issue with ) however more tellingly report that a persons ethnicity in terms of thoroughness of investigation that “there was no significant difference in the way they were handled”. They further noted that their were no “articulated steps” in 24% of aboriginal cases, but it was actually higher in non-indigenous groups at 26%.

At the end of this new inquiry there will be the requisite Mountie response, saying they have already addressed the issues and have already re-written policy and provided further training. They will tearfully promise to pledge their understanding and apologize for something.

And oh yes, the inquiry will recommend a statute or monument or similar token to the missing or murdered indigenous women. Not as noteworthy apparently are all the non-aboriginal women who have died of domestic violence.

And finally, and maybe more importantly, this will not help the indigenous people. They should be opposing this style of inquiry. Government, the police, and Canadian society has passed this stage. They need real solutions to complex problems and the forward thinking leaders of their groups need to come forward. They need economists, sociological and psychological experts, financial and business groups and the politicians to start developing a real policy on indigenous issues. They need to deal with the hard issues, such as the isolated surroundings in which many of the indigenous groups live,  they need to address the changing culture where indigenous groups in most areas have lost the ability and desire to live off the land.

Instead this will be a forum for self–flagellation.

This inquiry is just delaying real decision-making and what possible solutions there may be for another two years. Recommending more money and counselling, will be the outcome, but it should not be seen as a basis or as platforms for real solutions. Indigenous leaders themselves need to lead some problem solving efforts and get over the constant cries of victimization. Not because it didn’t exist and continue to exist, but because it is time to move on and lead their people from this morass.

This is an attempt to delay facing real issues, and provide for more selfie-inspired moments for the Liberals. This is too easy for them, and the indigenous people should not have been duped into this style of inquiry.

Indigenous children are growing up in abject poverty, in violent drug and alcohol-laden surroundings, and in isolation. Legal corruption runs amok in Band administrations and should be part of an investigative inquiry on its own. Indigenous isolated teens are drinking copier fluid, and joining suicide pacts, while clean drinking water is not available in many communities. This has been going on for decades and vast sums of monies have been spent.

The indigenous leaders, the politicians, and the legal and social worker community which dominates and flourishes in this current inquiry system should be ashamed.

Former Supreme Court Justice Willard Estey stated at one time when referring to the Canadian soldiers inquiry regarding Somalia in the mid 1990’s, that the inquiry process has been “abused beyond usefulness”. Truer words have never been spoken.




Image Courtesy of Tracy O via Creative Commons licence with Some Rights Reserved

Update: June 3 2017… So here we go…the Committee  is off to a rollicking start. First it has been slow to get going (who would have thought that about any government inquiry); indigenous groups are complaining that having to call in to schedule themselves to testify, or having to go online is too much of a burden for them; and now the Committee is likely going to ask for more time and money…none of this was predictable of course….meanwhile Justin is meeting the Pope and asking that he apologize to the indigenous groups….nobody could make this stuff up.

2nd Update:

July 12th, 2017: Marilyn Poitras has now reseigned from the Commission; two weeks ago Michelle Moreau resigned; before that three other inquiry staff members resigned; and now a Manitoba group wants new commissioners appointed. This has become a farce.