In the Search for Missing Women, Neighbors and Family Members Pair Drones With Indigenous Knowledge

Instead of waiting for answers from police, Indigenous communities are scanning hillsides and riverbeds—and helping families cope.
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Drones were used to help search several areas linked to the cases of missing women from the Shuswap North Okanagan region of British Columbia’s southern interior on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017.

Photo by Jim Elliot/Salmon Arm Observer

After three women went missing within a 12-minute drive of her house, Jody Leon decided to act. A member of the Splatsin tribal community in southeastern British Columbia, she was distressed by the women’s disappearances and her proximity to them. In 2017, Leon founded the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Drone Search Team to find them—or at least bring their families some answers.

“It was just shocking to me that there was a missing woman who lived not very far from my house, within my nation area,” Leon said. “I was disturbed and worried about it as a mom, as a grandmother, and the mother of a daughter.”

The group conducts volunteer-run drone and ground searches for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous women, covering up to 4 square miles of rugged hillsides and forests for clues such as clothing or disturbed land in unceded Secwepemc Nation territory. Between five and 12 volunteers, family members, and spiritual leaders travel from as far away as Calgary, Alberta—a six-hour drive through the Rocky Mountains—to participate in the searches. The group fundraises to provide food, gas, and drone batteries for searches, vigils, and awareness campaigns.

In 2017, Leon helped organize a walk to raise awareness about five women missing in the area: Caitlin Potts, Ashley Simpson, Nicole Bell, Deanna Wertz, and Traci Genereaux, an 18-year-old whose remains were found by police in October. Before the walk, parents of two of the missing women asked whether Leon could help organize a search, and she said yes. Despite severe flooding advisories, Leon joined John Simpson, Ashley’s father, to search creek and riverbeds. Simpson suggested searching the area with drones to cover more ground and access areas dangerous to reach by foot.

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The group’s first two drones were purchased with money from a charity golf tournament put on for Ashley. But the short battery life of the entry-level drones only allowed them to fly for five or 10 minutes at a time, Leon said.

So, for the last two years, the search team has relied on technical assistance from industry professionals, combined with Indigenous knowledge of the land, to conduct the drone searches. The team flies the drones in a grid pattern, scans the ground from above, and continues the search on foot when the batteries run out, said Dakota Lalonde, owner of Sky Crew Productions, a drone video and photography company.

Ty Kelsey from Crystal Mountain Aerial Media operates the drone used in a search for several missing women on Nov. 18, 2017. Photo by Jim Elliot/Salmon Arm Observer.

“We’ve found things like articles of clothing, unnatural mounds, pieces of bone, odd placements of plastic,” he said. His company and Crystal Mountain Aerial Media, a drone company in Kelowna, British Columbia, have donated their expertise and equipment to the team for the searches.

The team takes photos, geotags items on Google Maps, and gives the information to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Lalonde said.

“People are really interested in drones,” Leon said. “They’re fascinated by drone technology. It creates huge awareness. In that way, it gives the families confirmation that people are out there doing something about it.”

Canada’s colonial legacy

Violence against Indigenous women has been occurring in Canada and the United States since colonization, but until recently little has been done to bring answers to families of the missing.

In Canada, Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other women, according to research in a report published by Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. In the United States, they face violence at rates 10 times the national average.

Eighteen-year-old Traci Genereaux’s remains were found on Curtis Sagmoen’s farm last year. Sagmoen, 38, was charged in several separate counts of assault. No charges have been filed in Genereaux’s death. Photo by Janice Cantieri.

In 2016, the Canadian government launched the independent National Inquiry—similar to a national commission in the United States—to investigate the causes of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and offer recommendations. The commissioners were able to access police records across Canada and spoke to more than 2,000 family members and survivors of violence. Their final report will be released in April.

“It is official for me now, that because we are women and Indigenous women, it’s already dangerous. The safety is not there for us,” said Michèle Audette, commissioner on the National Inquiry.

The institutions meant to ensure safety and basic human rights are not protecting Indigenous women, she said, and these findings are consistent with assessments from the United Nations, Amnesty International, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

“The family members become the investigator,” Audette said, “become the researcher, become the expert to find answers, when it should be the institutions doing those things. For example, they’ve dragged the river in Manitoba, putting their lives in danger.”

Often, Indigenous communities don’t trust that police will act on reports of violence.

Many researchers credit the disproportionately high rates of violence against Indigenous women to the continued impact of Canada’s colonial government: Settlers stripped traditional roles and property rights from Indigenous women; forcibly removed children and placed them in foster homes and residential schools, where they experienced abuse; and forced or coerced the sterilization of Indigenous women, which continues today.

Additionally, reports show that violence against Indigenous women increases near a “man camp”—temporary housing built by an oil, gas, logging, or mining company for its workers. While these resource projects create employment for Indigenous workers, the high-paying jobs also attract high numbers of primarily young, male workers from across Canada, according to a 2016 report by Amnesty International. These “shadow workers” are estimated to increase local populations from 15 to 50 percent without contributing to local taxes, putting a strain on existing resources available for women and creating economic disparities.

A flyer for Caitlin Potts, who has been missing since Feb. 21, 2016, hangs in the bathroom of an Enderby gas station. Photo by Janice Cantieri.

The report found that industry camps increase the risk of violence against Indigenous women because of the high rates of drug and alcohol use by workers whose “economic power emboldens them to express racist and sexist attitudes they might suppress elsewhere.”

But often, Indigenous communities don’t trust that police will act on reports of violence. After all, instances of police brutality against Indigenous women and girls are ongoing.

Last June, RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki delivered an apology to the families of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. The RCMP updated its missing persons policy in 2016 to require scheduled communications with families and provide more supervision for missing persons cases, an RCMP spokesperson said in an email.

Indigenous communities across Canada have been doing their own searches, without adequate resources.

“The RCMP remains focused on resolving unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls within its jurisdiction and seeking closure for families,” the spokesperson said. “The RCMP is committed to achieving reconciliation with Indigenous peoples through a renewed relationship built on the recognition of rights, respect, cooperation, and partnership.”

Although police often search for missing women, they frequently fail to explain the investigation process with the women’s families, commissioners found.

“We noticed was that the family will ask the police, ‘Where are you with the investigation?’ or ‘What’s going on?’ and there will be no communication, no explanation,” Audette said. “Sometimes the work was done, but because there is no communication or explanation … it doesn’t help the family as they are trying to heal or find some answers. It’s feeding the trauma. It’s feeding the pain.”

In addition to leading ground and drone searches for missing women, the MMIW Drone Search Team holds rallies and candlelight vigils commemorating women who have gone missing and are still missing within Secwepemc territory. This one took place outside the Vernon, British Columbia, courthouse on Jan. 24. Photo by Janice Cantieri.

Instead of waiting for answers from police, Indigenous communities across Canada have been doing their own searches, without adequate resources, said Marion Buller, the inquiry’s chief commissioner.

“People have been doing these searches for years. They don’t just do it for a week or a month; every change in season they go back and search again,” she said.

“People are feeding each other, they’re sharing clothing, selling personal properties so that they can buy fuel for the Ski-Doos and fuel for the trucks. They’re not only doing the searches, but they’re funding it.”

Creating a support network for families

In addition to holding rallies and searches, the drone team acts as a liaison between Indigenous communities and the RCMP. People who distrust the police often come to team members with information or notify them after they report information to the police, which creates a layer of transparency if the police do not investigate further, Leon said.

Team members hang banners and red dresses on the courthouse steps during the rally. Red dresses have become a symbol for the high numbers of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls across North America. Photo by Janice Cantieri.

“The other day I was contacted and was told that someone had seen a ladies’ necklace in a certain area of the woods. The only reason they came forward was because they knew we are actively helping to search for women,” she said.

The group has also brought flyers and lent their own cell phones to people involved in the sex or drug trades who might not feel comfortable reporting information to police on their own.

Since they started searching, the drone team has found items of clothing and jewelry, pieces of bone, disturbed soil, and unusual mounds of dirt. They’ve turned them in to the police, who are not permitted during open investigation to disclose whether the evidence is linked to the women.

Members of the MMIW Drone Search Team rallied outside the Vernon, B.C. courthouse in January, where a bail hearing was held for Curtis Sagmoen. Photo by Janice Cantieri.

While the team hasn’t found the four missing women yet, they have created a support network for parents. Jane Aubertin, mother of Nicole Bell, who went missing in September 2017, said the group has helped her family feel like they are not alone in their search.

“The MMIW Drone Search Team contacted me pretty much at the beginning of when she went missing,” Aubertin said. “We felt very safe and confident when we went out on searches with them, that there’s somebody there holding our hands and helping us through this. Even though they have no clue who we are … they didn’t even know who Nicole is, but because she went missing in their nation, they felt an obligation.” She considers the other missing women like family, she said.

The drone team plans to resume searches for the four women over the summer, once the snow has melted.