Ever since Shelly Dene vanished without a trace in the summer of 2013, her sister has been fighting to learn the truth about her disappearance.
Candice L’Hommecourt last heard from her sister through a text message in August 2013.
“I asked her if she was OK, and she said no.”
Her grandmother was also out of town. When she got home a few weeks later, she also believed Dene was travelling, because none of her stuff had been left behind.
L’Hommecourt had no reason to believe her sister was in any danger. “She travelled a lot, she was very independent.”
But L’Hommecourt began to worry, in part because her sister had said she was in a relationship with a man she described as controlling, and talked about wanting to leave Edmonton.
Dene had problems with addictions in the past, but had enrolled in college and been sober for three years.
However, L’Hommecourt said during her contact with her sister, it was clear she was struggling again.
“At the point of her going missing, I think she was really lost.”
‘I knew something was wrong’
In November 2013, L’Hommecourt woke up one morning and dialled her sister’s cellphone number.
“It was disconnected,” she said, “and at that time, I knew that something was wrong.”
L’Hommecourt now thinks her grandmother was the last person in the family to see Dene alive, back in August 2013.
Dene’s grandmother had an apartment near 102nd Avenue and 114th Street in Edmonton.
L`Hommecourt reported her sister missing from there on November 8, 2013. Since then, she has contacted family, friends and even hospitals to try to piece the mystery together.
“I can’t give up, right? And I’m still looking for answers daily, and its just like the immense pain that this brings to me and my family.”
The Edmonton police missing persons unit is investigating the case, but told CBC News there are no new developments.
Cases going back to 1951
Dene is one of about 230 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women CBC News has documented, going back to earliest known case from Saskatchewan in 1951.
CBC’s exhaustive research has included conversations with more than 100 families, and has identified 51 unsolved cases in Alberta in that time frame.
About 70 per cent of the families want to see a public inquiry into the issue.
Many First Nations leaders in Alberta are also pushing for one. Cameron Alexis is the Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for Alberta in Treaties 6, 7 and 8. He was an RCMP officer for 23 years and was once chief of the Alexis First Nation.
“A lot of our people are missing from their communities, not just women but men. There are unresolved murders in my own First Nation community, and I speak for those people too, because we’ve had people missing since the Seventies, still missing.”
Calls for an inquiry
Alexis thinks only an inquiry can answer some of the key questions from indigenous leaders.
“I know the police persons out there are doing the best they can, at the same time one has to question the prosecution, the judges, the whole realm of justice. Is there a justice system or is there a judicial system?”
Many families contacted by CBC think police could have done more.
L’Hommecourt is pleased with the updates she’s getting from Edmonton police now, but is frustrated about their response to her initial complaint her sister was missing.
“I did all the research. I provided them with all the information. I looked into her friends, I looked into all the family members. I have files on everything I looked into on my sister. And I pretty much put together the whole last known year of being here.”
Edmonton police say they get thousands of calls every year about people who go missing. In cases where there’s no evidence of foul play, it’s normal for investigators to ask families to gather as much information as possible to help.
But police say the Dene case is one they’ve pulled out all the stops on.
Patrol members interviewed family members the day they got a complaint on November 8, 2013.
On that same day, police listed Dene as missing on the Canadian Police Information Centre database.
Police say in the early stages of the investigation, they talked to family and friends in Alberta and B.C. and have carried out a long list of checks with places such as hospitals in several provinces and territories, all in an effort to find new information.
Police follow every tip
Police say they’ve followed up on every tip including, the one L’Hommecourt is most disturbed about, which came from a witness who lived in the same apartment building as her grandmother.
“There was this one lady who came forward, and said that she’d seen a man taking bags out of my grandmother’s house that she believed were Shelly’s.”
Police say they’ve interviewed witnesses multiple times in Alberta and B.C., but to date have not produced any new information.
The missing persons unit wants to hear from anyone who might have information about Dene. They ask callers to use the police complaint line at 780 423-4567 or go online at http://www.tipsubmit.com.
Edmonton police spokesperson Scott Pattison said investigators have compassion for all families of missing persons, who they acknowledge “are going through unspeakable hell that no one should go through.”
RCMP Staff Sergeant Murray Marcichiw said missing persons investigations are some of the most challenging police face, especially in cases where there is no evidence of foul play.
Nonetheless, he said RCMP in Alberta have beefed up the missing persons unit. It has been fully staffed for about two years and now checks into cases every day to make sure they’re being properly investigated.
Candice L’Hommecourt, who lives in Fort Mackay, is due to meet with Edmonton police again later this month for an update on her sister’s case. She said she’ll keep trying to find answers for her family.
“It’s a mystery. And it’s like, oh, maybe this happened. But you never know, and I’ll never know until I actually find out the truth about my sister’s disappearance, and what happened to her.”