EDMONTON – Her name was Freda Goodrunning. She was 35 when she died last June, her body dumped in a storage shed behind a closed-down bar formerly known as the Tilted Kilt, on Stony Plain Road near 174th Street.
Her murder didn’t generate a lot of headlines. But her tragic story helps illustrate the challenges we face in confronting Canada’s crisis of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Freda was born on the Sunchild First Nation, northwest of Rocky Mountain House. According to family members, she was a mother of six children, the eldest born when Goodrunning was 19 or 20.
She battled a lot of demons. She was addicted to drugs and alcohol. She also had a history of relationships with violent, controlling men. Eventually, all her children were taken into the permanent care of the province.
She’d spent her last four years homeless, living on Edmonton streets.
Her body was found last June 4. An autopsy was conducted the next day. But police didn’t release her name, age or description. She was just an anonymous corpse, her death termed “suspicious,” but not criminal. Later in June, police said they were waiting for a full toxicology report before determining a cause of death.
With that, the story vanished from view.
In October, police ruled Goodrunning’s death was a homicide. She’d died of blunt force trauma.
Still, they kept that information, and her identity, confidential. Finally, on Dec. 19, the Edmonton Police Service held an odd pre-Christmas news conference, at which they told reporters of three previously unacknowledged homicides, including Goodrunning’s.
Police refused to answer questions about the case. They’d only hint that keeping Goodrunning’s murder secret had somehow helped them.
“It assisted our investigation by keeping things quiet, it has moved them forward, I really can’t comment more,” Staff Sgt. Bill Clark said at the brief news conference.
That’s all the explanation we’ve ever been given about why it took police so long to tell the public Goodrunning’s name and fate.
“The integrity of an investigation is the priority in every file. This could mean that some information is not released to the public for investigative reasons,” said police spokesperson Noreen Remtulla via email on Monday.
Still, with so little information it’s hard to imagine exactly how keeping a murder secret from the entire community could ever help solve it — or keep other women safe.
Monday, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the human rights branch of the Organization of American States, issued a measured, thorough report into the crisis of missing and murdered aboriginal women, focusing specifically on British Columbia.
In its report, the seven-member panel echoes calls for a national inquiry into the problem of missing and murdered First Nations women and girls. But the report goes well beyond rote political rhetoric.
Without ignoring the legacy of residential schools or the challenge of institutional racism, it makes very practical, pragmatic suggestions, about everything from tracking better demographic data on missing and murdered women to improving Legal Aid, to providing better public transportation in high-crime corridors like Highway 16, to providing better educational and employment opportunities for aboriginal women. The report also stresses police must do more to communicate with aboriginal families when a relative goes missing or is killed, to build trust within the aboriginal community.
Freda’s sister, Raquel Goodrunning, says police didn’t inform her of her sister’s death until two days after the fact. Freda’s cousin Amanda says they first learned of the death via street gossip. And Raquel says she only learned in November that police had ruled Freda’s death a homicide.
“They didn’t want to advertise it, because it might hurt their investigation,” she says. “I don’t know what they were trying to do. What bothers me is that they won’t tell me anything. And I have a right to know, because she’s my sister.”
Like many who’ve died or disappeared, Freda Goodrunning was living what’s called a “high-risk lifestyle.” But it’s hard to start a community conversation about helping aboriginal women to get off the street, to get off drugs, to get out of violent relationships, if we’re not even told when someone dies. Until police across Canada can build open relationships with aboriginal communities, how can we ever begin to stop these crimes?
Freda Goodrunning had a name. She had a story. She deserved the dignity of having the community note and mourn her death.
We don’t need more secrecy about the deaths of aboriginal women. We need more honesty. And more answers.
Originally posted in the Edmonton Journal,