CBC News Posted: Mar 06, 2016
Brianna Jonnie, 14, writes missing and murdered indigenous girls and women are not important to police
An indigenous girl in Winnipeg has a message for police chief Devon Clunis: You can do better.
Brianna Jonnie, 14, wrote it in a letter addressed to Clunis, a number of government officials and members of local media. In it, she describes observing cases of non-indigenous missing persons treated differently than those involving indigenous girls and women.
She used the recent disappearance and subsequent death of Cooper Nemeth as an example.
“Deputy Chief Danny Smyth conducted himself in a most respectful manner when disclosing Cooper had been found deceased and drugs were involved,” Jonnie wrote.
“I have noticed missing indigenous girls are not afforded the same courtesies — by the community, the media or the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS).”
While Jonnie identifies herself as indigenous in the letter, she specifies she does not fit demeaning descriptions mainstream media have assigned to missing and murdered indigenous girls and women in the past — often to their loved ones’ dismay.
“I am not involved in drugs, alcohol, prostitution, or other illegal activity,” the letter reads.
“I am not a runaway, nor am I involved with Child & Family Services.”
Acknowledging that her identity elevates her risk of encountering violence, Jonnie outlines instructions for Clunis to follow if she goes missing.
“Provide details that humanize me, not just the colour of my hair, my height and my ethnicity,” she wrote.
“If I go missing and the WPS has not changed the behaviours I have brought to your attention, I beg of you, do not treat me as the indigenous person I am proud to be.”
On Sunday, Jonnie said she started noticing what she believed were discrepancies in police reactions to indigenous and non-indigenous missing persons cases about two years ago.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said.
She said she was surprised to find out Clunis is willing to meet with her and that reaction from the WPS and media has made her feel hopeful; as though change may be on the horizon.
“In the future I’d encourage people to not look at who the person that went missing might have been, I’d want them to look at just, ‘This is a person, they went missing and we need to look for them,'” she said.
Her mother, Amanda McCormick, said she encouraged her to write the letter.
“Maybe after reading her letter … maybe people will start to speak differently when they hear of an indigenous girl who’s missing, and they won’t just recognize her as indigenous; and they won’t just recognize her as another runaway. They’ll recognize her as human,” she said.
‘We need to do a better job’
Speaking on behalf of the Winnipeg Police Service, Const. Jason Michalyshen said the letter reminded the force that they must do a better job educating the public about why investigations unfold the way they do.
The first step in that process is having Jonnie meet with the missing persons unit, which will take place in the coming days, according to Michalyshen.
A meeting with Clunis is in the works, too, he said, and it could happen as early as this week.
In the letter, Jonnie drew comparisons between the length of time it takes the WPS to send out a public notice about a missing non-indigenous person and a missing indigenous person.
“Tina Fontaine was reported missing on August 9, 2014. According to media, a WPS request for the public’s help was submitted August 13th. Nora Leah Rae was reported missing on August 6, 2014 and the WPS appealed for help on August 22nd. Jaylene Amos was reported missing on January 4, 2016 and a request for help was issued on January 15th,” she wrote.
“Cooper Nemeth however, had his image in the paper the next day; Thelma Krull was in online reports less than 24 hours after her disappearance and Alissa Voetberg, the next day.”
But Michalyshen said the time it takes for police to send a missing person’s notice does not indicate whether the case is a priority.
“News releases should not be a gage of importance,” he said, calling it a matter of “perception.”
“The consensus is we need to do a better job of educating and providing a better and more accurate perception with respect to why investigations unfold the way they do.”
He acknowledged, however, Jonnie’s letter raised questions that must be answered.
“It was incredibly well written,” he said.
“A very compelling letter from a 14-year-old girl.”