FORT ST. JOHN, B.C.—Helen Knott remembers only that she was in an overcrowded apartment, not far from home, with another young woman and about eight men, all transient workers from outside the community.
“My body, my choices, my rights, my voice, taken that night,” Knott, a social worker, activist and poet wrote in a personal essay online about the sexual assault — not her first — that was so violent she feared losing the ability to have more children.
She was struggling with sobriety at the time and continued to spiral downward, binge-using cocaine and eventually leaving the city — and her young son — to escape to Edmonton, where she knows how close she came to becoming another statistic, another indigenous woman dead from suicide, drugs or violence.
“I was in this place where I was ready to disappear and I probably would have hit street level and how long would my life span have been after that? I’m not sure,” Knott, 28, recalled one afternoon in Fort St. John, the heavy snowfall settling on her hood.
She credits a friend in Toronto with saving her life by encouraging countless supporters to flood her with text messages of love and light.
She chose to live, to get treatment, to return home to her family.
She also chose not to be silent anymore, and devotes much of her time as an indigenous community activist to supporting other victims of sexual violence in and around Fort St. John, which she believes is linked to the fluctuating resource-based economy — and the transient, mostly male, workforce that comes with it — in this small city in northeast B.C.
“I see it as imperative to talk about things and start highlighting that, because it really does create a dangerous place for our women and our young women coming up,” said Knott, who has played a central role in leading protests against construction of the $8.8-billion B.C. Hydro Site C dam project.
“If you noticed the landscape around here, it is no trouble to go missing,” said Sylvia Lane, who runs the poverty law advocacy program at the Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society, where chaos reigns amidst the laughter and tears that come with serving a vulnerable population with never enough money or people to do so.
The annual Sisters in Spirit vigils for missing or murdered indigenous women and girls in Fort St. John always feature an astonishingly long list of names for a city with only about 21,000 people, especially since when people think of this issue in British Columbia they think first of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside or the infamous Highway of Tears.
That list includes four unsolved cases involving women of aboriginal descent who went missing directly from Fort St. John and have never been found. They are: Ramona Jean Shular, 37, in 2003; Abigail Andrews, 28, in 2010; Shirley Cletheroe, 45, in 2006; Stacey Rogers, a teenager who disappeared in the mid-1980s. There is also the suspicious death of Pamela Napoleon, 42, whose remains were found in a burnt-out cabin about a month after she was last seen in Blueberry River First Nation, about an hour north along the Alaska Highway.
There are other names of women or girls the local indigenous community counts as missing or having died violently, who were connected to Fort St. John or one of the nearby reserves at some point in their lives.
Connie Greyeyes, 44, who organizes the vigils and is connected in some way to many of the women on the list — including Rogers, who one day just stopped showing up at the pool hall they frequented together when they were both teenagers — says many families have felt the RCMP did not take their investigations seriously.
“Over and over again, that’s all we hear,” said Greyeyes. “Stories of families who were told they had to wait a certain amount of time, who were told, ‘She’ll be back. She took off. She was drinking. She was partying. You know how she is.’ The list is endless of excuses as to why they didn’t want to go and look for this person, right now.”
The RCMP did not make anyone from the Fort St. John detachment available for an interview, but Cpl. Dave Tyreman, a spokesman based in Prince George, said he could not comment on any of the unsolved cases — or concerns raised by families — except to say the investigations are still considered active and are routinely reviewed as new information or technological advances become available.
There is a perception in the community that Fort St. John is a training ground for Mounties at the beginning of their careers, a concern that was raised in a 2011 report by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
Tyreman, who also declined an interview but provided written responses to a list of questions from the Star, acknowledged “many” of the 60 police officers working out of the Fort St. John detachment come straight from training at the RCMP’s “Depot” Division in Regina, but noted “there is a wide range of experience to help mentor and train new officers.”
The circumstances surrounding each violent death and disappearance is as unique as the women involved. But when it comes to violence against women in Fort St. John in general, be it from strangers or spouses, there has been some local research looking at whether the nature of the extraction industry — with its high-paying jobs, transient workforce, isolating shift work, culture of hypermasculinity and boom-and-bust cycles — plays a role.
“Many of the social strains created by the regional resource economy, such as the shortage of affordable housing and the large wage gap between women and men, are among the established risk factors for violence against women and girls,” Amnesty International, which has been investigating violence against indigenous women in Fort St. John for a report due later this year, wrote in an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier Christy Clark last year outlining its concerns with the Site C dam.
The Peace Project, a three-year initiative funded by Status of Women Canada to end violence against women in Fort St. John, conducted local research on possible contributing factors. These included income disparity between men and women, an increase in substance abuse, the high cost of living, a lack of affordable housing and, perhaps most importantly, social services that are forced to provide for a much bigger population than might be officially recognized by their sources of funding.
“When you get an influx of money, you get the underside that comes with it as well,” said Lane, from the Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society, who often deals directly with homeless people, substance abuse and sex workers in the city, which she said has included young women forced into prostitution to pay for rent, or drug debts.
“It’s a small town, but big things happen here,” she said.
Adrienne Greyeyes, 27, said she has seen it growing up in the community, too.
“It was normal for 24-year-old oil workers to be at high school parties, essentially going after young girls,” she said.
“I feel that Fort St. John, because of the work, attracted that sort of lifestyle. . . You’re giving a lot of young people who have limited life experience such large amounts of money for doing this work and they end up wanting to party and have fun, but it’s our young women who are the ones vulnerable to it,” she said.
Ashley Watson, 25, said she experienced sexual harassment and racism while working in construction over the past few months, which included watching guys pinning up images of near-naked women in the lunch room, or hearing co-workers start singing “One little, two little, three little Indians” when they passed by her and two other female indigenous co-workers.
“I’d come home from work and I’d be crying,” said Watson.
Tracy Porteous, executive director of Ending Violence Association of B.C. (EVA BC), said companies are getting better at responding to impacts on the community, but her organization is calling for gender-based analysis, including a safety impact assessment, to be built into the environmental assessment process required for project approvals.
“I don’t think anybody is specifically hiving off the impacts on women and unless we specifically look at that, we believe that it is not going to get addressed,” she said.
The economy has shifted with the downturn in the oil and gas sector, in particular, but with the Site C dam promising to bring 10,000 new jobs to the area, people who cannot find work elsewhere in Canada, including Alberta, are making their way up — without always having the necessary skills and training to get a job, or a place to stay.
Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman said the municipality has reached an agreement in principle with B.C. Hydro on community measures to help mitigate the impact of the project, which includes funding for front-line services.
“We told them that our social fabric would be stretched,” she said.
David Conway, a B.C. Hydro spokesman for the Site C dam project, declined an interview, but emailed a statement that said these community measures included building a camp for workers that is self-sufficient and includes an on-site health clinic, as well as 50 new rental housing units in the city — 10 more than are needed for workers — to help relieve the shortage.
PAMELA NAPOLEON, 42
Sherry Dominic wishes she could have had the strength to go take a closer look at her family cabin, destroyed by fire, when the police were there with a dog that summer day two years ago.
“To this day, I think: What if I would have went closer to the cabin? I keep that in my mind, you know, what if?” Dominic said in the kitchen of her home on Blueberry River First Nation, a reserve about an hour north along the Alaska Highway from Fort St. John.
She was too emotional about the fire that day — too many memories of her late brother associated with that cabin she had been so sorry to lose in an unexpected fire earlier that month — so she stood some distance away, smoking a cigarette, while the dog sniffed around.
The dog did not find the human remains found on the bed a few weeks later.
They belonged to Pamela Napoleon, 42, a childhood friend who had once lived a hard life, hitchhiking from one couch to another around B.C. and Alberta, before finally getting her own home back on the Blueberry reserve.
“Sometimes we don’t know where you are and it would be nice if you could keep in contact with us, because one of these days we are going to be going around looking for you,” Dominic recalled a mutual friend telling Napoleon during those wandering years.
That was then, though, before Napoleon got her house in the community, where she would put her culinary school talents to use cooking up meals for her friends and her adult sons, who lived nearby.
“She just came home and stayed home. She stayed here because she had a place to call home. It was her own little cabin. She would go to Fort St. John to do her shopping or whatever, but she would always come home,” says Dominic, a band councillor.
That is why Dominic knew something was wrong when she had not heard from her friend in a while after receiving a final text message from her on July 8, 2014, when she was planning to head up to a ranch the band owns in Pink Mountain, about 180 kilometres away, to visit her boyfriend at the time.
“She never made it up there,” said Dominic.
Her family reported her missing to the Fort St. John RCMP, but then Dominic was thrust into the role of amateur detective, organizing volunteer search parties and feeling like she had to pressure the RCMP into taking a look at potential pieces of evidence.
There was the camouflage cap Napoleon had been known to wear that an elder from the community found lying in the ditch on the passenger side of a vehicle that had been abandoned on the side of the road.
There was the surveillance video from a gas station along the highway where she was sure Napoleon would have had to stop, but the owner was away and the RCMP said they could not access the footage — until it was too late.
There were the trips into Fort St. John, to put up missing person posters and to ask the street people with whom Napoleon had been friendly whether they had seen her around.
There was the trip up to the burnt cabin, where the police found nothing, but then a close relative of Napoleon found the bones on Aug. 4, which police were able to identify. But they were unable to determine the cause of death from her bones.
Throughout it all, there was Dominic, other friends and family having to insist to the police that yes, while Napoleon used to travel around a lot, she did not do so anymore.
The RCMP news release issued at the time of her disappearance noted this fact.
“They also advised that this is very out of character for Pamela not to be in contact with them for this long,” said the release, but then added another detail: “She is known to travel to Vancouver, Abbotsford, Prince George, Grande Prairie and Pink Mountain to visit with family and friends.”
SHIRLEY CLETHEROE, 45
Jody Ryan, 32, remembers reaching the height of happiness a decade ago.
She had recently given birth to the first of her three young sons, she was in a loving and strong, stable relationship with the man who is now her husband and her close-knit family — especially her mother, Shirley Cletheroe — was there to enjoy it with her.
“Life was good. I remember being so happy and it was perfect. It was the cherry on top,” said Ryan, a bubbly but no-nonsense woman with an easy laugh — much like her mother, she admitted — in the dining room of her home in Fort St. John, B.C.
Cletheroe, 45, was the type of mother who would call her daughter several times a day, sometimes just to let her know her favourite program was on the television.
Ryan remembers the last telephone conversation, on June 10, 2006, when she put her newborn up to the phone and laughed as he looked around to see where the voice of his doting grandmother was coming from.
“Nothing was terrible, until it all happened,” said Ryan, who remembers it sinking in slowly over the course of a few days, that this was it.
They were going to be that family now — that family missing a loved one.
What exactly happened remains unclear.
Cletheroe, who raised five children, was staying with her sister for some time after having gotten into an argument with her husband, which Ryan believes was nothing serious.
The night of that last phone call with her daughter, Cletheroe headed to a house party across the street from where her sister lived, leaving her truck in the driveway.
She was never seen or heard from again.
Ryan is frustrated by the pace of the RCMP investigation, which in her experience has involved being contacted by one investigator after another over the years as each one starts from the beginning again after having been transferred the file.
“Oh, so you want me to tell you the same story, over again?” said Ryan, who said she was also annoyed by some of the stereotypes that seemed to guide the line of questioning.
“Every time the investigation was passed on: ‘Oh does your mom drink? How often does she drink? Was she drinking that night?’ Look, dude — it doesn’t matter if she was drinking. Find her!” said Ryan.
“It just gets frustrating. I don’t want to sound like I am against the RCMP or anything, but they are just not doing their job,” said Ryan.
RENE LYNN GUNNING, 19
Jo Gunning, 56, held his daughter, Rene Lynn, on the hospital bed as she mourned the loss of her prematurely born son and promised to turn her life around.
“We had a real, close emotional bonding time then,” Gunning said of the conversation that followed a tense period in their relationship, when she had left home, pregnant for the second time, to be with a boyfriend that he did not like.
“She turned to me and said, ‘I know I’ve done a lot of bad things. . . I want to come home. I want to get my act together. I want to be a mother to (my son). I want to go back to school and get my education,’ ” Gunning recalled.
He told her she was welcome home any time and things were good for a short while, until one day, following a heated argument between her father and her boyfriend, she ran out the back door and started sleeping on couches again.
Sometime later, the 19-year-old hitchhiked to the West Edmonton Mall, where she spent the day of Feb. 18, 2005, before leaving to hitchhike back home to Fort St. John, B.C., again with 16-year-old Krystle Knott, who was from Dawson Creek, B.C.
Over the next five years, Gunning says he travelled to Edmonton at least four times, desperately hoping to find her somewhere on the streets, perhaps having gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd, or the sex trade, searching for her in the mall where she was last seen.
“Every time I would see somebody with long, black hair like hers, from behind, my heart would stop and I would pick up my pace and walk up, walk in front of this person to have a look. And it wasn’t her and my heart would drop to the bottom of my stomach again. I always kept my hopes up that I would find her,” Gunning said.
On May 21, 2011, campers found the skulls of both girls near Grande Prairie, Alta.
“It was the worst day of my life. I’d been dreading that day a long time. I was hoping it had never come, but it did. How I never went back to booze and drugs, I don’t know,” said Gunning.
The investigation is in the hands of the RCMP Project KARE task force, and while Gunning thinks they are doing the best they can, he believes they need more resources.
“They can only do so much with what they’ve got,” he said.
— Joanna Smith
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