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February 19, 2024

My Sister is Missing, Does Anybody Care?

By Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith

Blythe is a sleepy little hamlet with about 1500 to 2000 people, and around an hour away from one of the largest reserves known to the residents in Blythe and surrounding towns. There are only a handful of First Nations people that live in this town, and most of them are there because of previous flooding on the neighboring reserves. They reside in the town's only motel -- the Blythe Inn.

The Blythe Inn, situated behind the Community Centre, had seen better days. When the inn first opened up, its owners had taken great pride in caring for their establishment. They had made sure they were always on top of the upkeep of the place, were courteous and polite to those passing through their doors, and even stopped and chatted with those who were passing by on the street. When the initial owners, after owning the inn for 25 years, decided to transfer the inn to a new couple, the change in ownership impacted all of Blythe.

The new owners, though they meant well, got behind in the upkeep of the inn, and the building lost its previous charm. Business there wasn't what it used to be, and it soon became a place for what Blythe residents called the "down and out." The inn became a place that surrounding First Nations communities sent their residents to stay in during flood season. Some First Nations residents only stayed until they got the okay from reserve officials to head back home, but there were others that just stayed on.

There was anger on the part of some of the full-time residents of Blythe about the First Nations people that resided in their town. To them, the floods had been over for quite some time, and the First Nations people were a drain on their little town's taxes. Though some First Nations stayed at the inn, there were a handful that were scattered around the town; it was beginning to make Blythe residents more annoyed and fed up.

Blythe residents, who were predominantly non-Native, were of the opinion that "Those Indians just need to leave and go back home, because they have homes and they can't just keep having a free ride at our expense."

* * *

Anne and her two daughters, Jean and Alex, were three of the First Nations that stayed on in the community, but instead of living at the inn, Anne rented a nearby house and had been there for over a year. Though things were a bit tough for them, they managed to do okay. Anne had secured a job at the little grocery store in Blythe that was not far from the little house she rented.

Her two daughters, though struggling at first to adapt to their new living situation, had seemed to be okay. Her two daughters had always been close, and Jean, her oldest daughter, took over the role of taking care of her little sister Alex while Anne worked to make their new living situation bearable.

That was until Jean, who was an impressionable young teenager, started experiencing depression, and volatile mood swings that left Anne and Alex scared. Jean soon disappeared, and became all that Anne and her youngest daughter could focus on. Their lives changed forever, the day Jean left during one of her angry mood swings and never came home.

* * *

Today there are posters plastered all over the little community of Blythe. A beautiful young teenaged girl with big doe-like brown eyes, shoulder length brown hair, and a slight build stares out at you everywhere. The poster is on the two small grocery store noticeboards, and a couple of random telephone poles that are scattered here and there on the main drag. One more poster greets you as you walk into the Blythe Community Centre.

In the picture that you see throughout this small community, you can see a certain sadness in the young girl's eyes, as she stares out at you from the hastily put together poster that was made about her -- the poster made on a cheap inkjet printer in Blythe's Community Centre. The image of this girl makes you want to reach into the poster and hug the girl close to you, but you can't. You can only look at the picture and wonder, "Why has this girl gone missing?"

This young girl -- Jean is the first to go missing from this community, but it's reminiscent of what is happening in big metropolises throughout Canada. It brings to mind the grisly events that unfolded in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and how the disappearance of so many women, between 1978 and 2002, went largely ignored. You think about the over five hundred Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and the negative portrayal and/or lack of coverage that the mainstream media has given to this issue. It makes you stop and ask "How many other young girls will go missing before the police or Canadian government does something?"

* * *

Jean went missing on June 25, 2012, four days after National Aboriginal Day. She was 18 years old. Her sister Alex didn't really understand why the Canadian government had National Aboriginal Day -- a day put aside for First Nations, Inuit and Metis people to celebrate and showcase their rich culture and traditions with the general Canadian public. Since its inception in June 1996, many cities and communities celebrated it, but as it rolled around each year, Alex would just roll her eyes and say, "I'm Indian every day, why should I celebrate who I am for just one day, when I am in the same skin every day?"

Alex was always happy that her family never celebrated June 21, because it wasn't like there were many festivities in Blythe anyways. There were only a handful of native people in Blythe, and if they did any celebrating, it meant hitching a ride with someone and traveling an hour or two to the nearby reserves of Bear Island, Jack River or Fisher River. And even then, you couldn't really count on anything really happening, because it wasn't like you were in the big cities of Canada, like Alex had heard of, Winnipeg or Toronto.

Alex remembers the day her big sister Jean went missing. She blames herself, because they had argued.

She had been sitting on the worn-out couch in the living room of the little dilapidated house that they lived in with their mother Anne. Alex was half-lying on the couch, dressed in her favorite black sweatpants and t-shirt. In one hand, she was holding a can of her favorite pop -- Diet Coke -- and in the other hand she was holding the worn and taped up remote control. She was flipping through the television stations on their ratty old television trying to find at least one show she could watch on the crappy satellite service her mom had just signed up for, when Alex heard her older sister Jean's feet stomping down the small narrow hallway.

THUMP ... THUMP ... her sister's feet went. Alex had giggled, thinking, "Gawd, you would think there was a herd of elephants coming through the apartment with the way Jean walks!"

Two seconds later, there was another thump, as Jean walked into the living room and hit her shoulder against the wall. "Ouch!" Jean muttered, as she kneaded her shoulder where she had hit it a second before. She looked at her little sister splashed out so nonchalantly on the couch and drawled, "Hey brat! What ya laughing about?"

Alex looked up at her sister and said, "Nothing."

"Well, you must be laughing at something because there isn't anyone else around to laugh at."

"WHATEVER!" Alex yelled. A couple of seconds went by and Alex felt her heart go into her throat. Jean was only a couple of feet away, and Alex could feel Jean's eyes boring into her. Alex had been fearful of her big sister lately. She had been told over and over again from her ma that she couldn't upset Jean in any way, especially with the mood swings and outbursts Jean had been having.

"I'm laughing at you and your dumb elephant feet," she continued, as she mentally tells herself "Ah crap! Why did I have to go and say that? Now Jean is really going to be mad at me!"

Alex hadn't always been afraid of Jean. It had only been in the last two years that Alex saw Jean change. A million thoughts went through Alex's head as she started to think about how Jean used to be happy to stay at home babysitting while their ma worked, and all the things that Jean showed her how to do. She had loved it when Jean would go through her old clothes, after getting a new batch from the local Sally Ann and say, "Hey Alex, take these, I won't wear them anymore."

Though they were pretty poor, Jean had always had a knack for putting outfits together. Alex also loved how Jean used to show her how to sew buttons back on her shirts, or iron the laundry. Sometimes they would rush down the quiet deserted streets of Blythe to make sure they got some candy from the grocery store before it closed. Jean never let her walk to the store herself, because she was afraid that a stranger might pick Alex up. If Alex tried to argue with her, Jean would shake her head and say "Don't get pissed at me, I'm only following Ma's rules."

Shaking her head, Alex thought, "Boy, things have changed."

Jean hadn't been herself for quite some time. She was moodier than usual, withdrawn and always wanting to sleep. Alex had noticed that over the past few months, Jean had increasingly become someone else. She wasn't the big sister she had always known her to be with her. Jean would have more outbursts of crying, yelling and even getting physical, throwing punches at the walls, or taking scissors and cutting herself.

Jean thought she was hiding the cuts from everyone by wearing huge long sleeved tops, but her mom and sister knew, and so did a couple of her friends, but nothing was ever really done because Jean didn't want to travel all the way to Winnipeg just to get picked at by a shrink.

Alex wasn't relaxing anymore. She sat upright on the worn couch and took in the few minutes of silence between herself and Jean. The quiet was broken when Jean asked, "So, Sis, where is Ma hiding the money jar these days?"

Surprised at the question, Alex said, "What? Jean, that money is only for emergencies, we're not supposed to touch it!"

"Well, aren't you the goodie two-shoes, not telling me where it is," Jean snarled. "Tell me where the money jar is, Alex."

"Why, what are you going to do with it?" asked Alex.

"It's none of your damn business what I am going to do with it! If you don't tell me where it is, I'll take the monies you have hidden under your mattress!" yelled Jean.

Alex turned a bright red. "YOU CAN'T TOUCH MY MONEY! That's my birthday money!" she screamed.

"Well, wait and see!" said Jean as she turned abruptly around and ran back to the bedroom the girls share. Alex could hear things being thrown around. A thump here, a thump there, a loud crash a second later and then, like a storm cloud, as Alex was deciding whether or not to call her mom at work, Jean ran by, her shoes on and her jacket haphazardly thrown over her shoulder.

BANG! The house walls shook as the front door slammed. There was a flurry of noise briefly outside in the hallway, but then all was quiet. Alex started to cry. She reached for the phone to call her ma. Her fingers shook as she punched in the number.

3 ... 1 ... 4 ... 5 ... 1 ... 8 ... 4...

The phone rang for a couple of seconds and then Jean heard her mom's familiar voice: "Blythe Foods, how can I help you?"

With her mom on the other side of the phone she said, "Jean's upset again. She ... she ... she took off, Ma!"

"Alex ... Alex ... calm down. Why was she upset? Do you know where she went?"

Alex sniffled and wiped her hand across her nose, as she told her mom about the argument over where the money jar was being hidden, and how she yelled at Jean that she wasn't going to tell her where it was.

Over the phone, Anne told her youngest daughter, "You stay right where you are, and wait and see if Jean comes home. My shift ends soon, but I'll try to leave as soon as I can."

"Okay, okay, Ma, just hurry," Alex whined.

Anne came home from her job at the Blythe Foods grocery store an hour later. She found Alex curled up on the living room couch, her eyes bright red and swollen from crying, and she hugged a teddy bear. The television was on, but Anne could tell that Alex was not taking any of it in.

Knowing Jean and her temper, Anne didn't think much of Jean being gone at first. She thought that Jean would calm down and come home soon. As Anne and Alex sat in the small living room of their house in Blythe, they kept nervously looking between the clock and the worn down front door of their house. The clock hit 1 A.M., and Jean still hadn't shown up.

Anne knew that Jean had always been good about keeping to the curfew that they had set: 10 P.M. on weekdays and 11 P.M. on weekends. She reached over to the phone on the coffee table and called the nearest RCMP attachment office.

The phone rang three times before Anne heard a gruff voice say, "RCMP, what's the nature of your call?"

"Officer, my daughter Jean is missing."

The RCMP told Anne that Jean would come home, and that she probably just went to a friend's house to cool off. Anne told the RCMP that Jean never stayed away longer than a couple of hours when she was upset, but the RCMP didn't listen.

"She'll be back," they told her.

When the next morning arrived, and there was still no sign of Jean, Anne called the RCMP again ... They told her the same thing: "She'll be back, Ma'am."

* * *

It's like this for every day that Anne calls. They're indifferent to the fact that Jean is missing and something is wrong. They brush Anne off every day she calls, and tell her "You're being a nuisance, your daughter will be back."

Jean doesn't come back though. She's still out there.

Anne has Alex make posters with her sister's picture and information on it, and plaster it around Blythe. It's been over a month since Jean went missing. Alex walks down a side road not far from her house, like she has every day since her sister disappeared. She goes out, rain or shine, and looks at the cars she passes and the handful of people she sees. She wonders if someone will stop her and say, "Hey, I've seen your sister, she's okay."

But nobody does.

Alex is left with the thought:

"My sister is missing, doesn't anyone care?"

* * *

Author's note: In Canada, rates of violent crime are relatively low; murders and abductions generate significant media attention and mobilize impressive deployments of law enforcement agencies. However, the lack of inquiry into the disappearance of over 500 First Nations women remains a contentious issue between First Nations people and the Canadian government.

Article © Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-05-05
Image(s) © Livia Vorange. All rights reserved.
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