Policing

More people go missing in BC than anywhere else in Canada. No one knows why

Police don’t track missing-persons cases by race, but on Red Dress Day, a Vancouver Island Indigenous leader says that’s not acceptable

Policing

More people go missing in BC than anywhere else in Canada. No one knows why

Police don’t track missing-persons cases by race, but on Red Dress Day, a Vancouver Island Indigenous leader says that’s not acceptable

Photo: James MacDonald
Policing

More people go missing in BC than anywhere else in Canada. No one knows why

Police don’t track missing-persons cases by race, but on Red Dress Day, a Vancouver Island Indigenous leader says that’s not acceptable

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More people go missing in BC than anywhere else in Canada. No one knows why
Photo: James MacDonald

On Oct. 16, 2017, Jordan Holling didn’t show up for work. 

This was out of character—the 17-year-old was rarely even late for his shifts at the Campbell River A&W.

The friends he had been with late the previous night hadn’t heard from him all day. Later, he wouldn’t meet up with his sister, like he had planned to. By the evening, still, no one had seen or heard from Jordan.

A police report was filed, a missing-person alert was sent out, and worry began to grow.

“Things were weird. It wasn’t instantly a major worry… We were concerned, but we didn’t know anything really crazy had happened other than he was missing and things didn’t seem right,” Morgan Holling, Jordan’s dad, told Capital Daily. 

“It just got worse from there.”

Holling knows that his son left his friend’s apartment on 16th Avenue sometime after 1am to walk the short distance home. He was last seen on surveillance footage near Highway 19 and 14th Avenue. His skateboard was found in the area, but there has been no sign of Jordan.

Jordan Holling went missing on Oct. 16, 2017. Photo: Morgan Holling

It’s been three years since Jordan’s disappearance, and in that time, there has been little progress on his case, and even fewer answers. 

Each year, BC sees a disproportionately high number of missing persons cases, with nearly double the number reported in the next closest province, Ontario, which has nearly triple its population. Across the country, the majority of missing persons cases are resolved within days to a week, but some, like Jordan’s, remain unsolved for years. 

And while missing persons cases in BC continue to eclipse the national average, there is no clear consensus on why that is. 

So many unknowns

BC recorded 12,400 missing persons cases involving adults in 2020—more than 40% of the country’s 29,645 cases. The same year, there were 5,870 cases of missing children in BC—the third highest number in the country behind Ontario and Manitoba.

Over the past five years, these statistics from the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains have been fairly consistent for adults; for children, the numbers have dropped by more than 1,600 since 2015.  

BC RCMP communications officer for the Island District Cpl. Chris Manseau says there is no clear reason why BC has such high numbers of missing people compared to other provinces, but he believes the province’s topography could be a contributing factor: lots of lakes, forests, mountains, and the ocean. If someone goes missing, it can sometimes be hard to even decide where to start searching. 

“There are so many factors when it comes to missing people. People want to pick up and leave and just want to start new lives, people who just want to get lost, whether they want to commit self harm or leave a situation,” he said. “So missing people—it’s a difficult thing to really put a finger on the pulse of, for sure.”

Data from the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, does not help to paint a clearer picture. The reason for the vast majority of missing people in BC in 2020—about 70% of the 12,400 missing persons cases—is listed as unknown. The second-most common reason, accounting for about 12% of cases, is marked “other.” 

The data is compiled from missing person transactions in the Canadian Police Information Centre; however, the national centre says data is not always consistently completed nor maintained by agencies, leading to gaps. 

The last 18% of recorded cases are largely split between “runaway” and “wandered off.” A final small percentage is due to abduction or an accident, or the subject has been presumed dead. There was one female listed as a victim of human trafficking in 2020. 

According to the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, 61% of missing adults reported in 2020 were removed within 24 hours, and 89% were removed within a week. In a 2019 article, Star Vancouver reported 2,500 people have gone missing and stayed missing in BC since records started being kept decades ago. Across the country, this number is approximately 7,000. 

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Manseau said a common misconception is that someone can only be declared missing if 24 hours have passed with no contact. This is not true: missing persons should be reported as soon as possible. 

The first 72 hours after a person goes missing is the most critical. The more time that passes, the more evidence is lost; and if the person is in danger, time is everything.

BC’s search-and-rescue teams are often called in to help RCMP with searches involving remote or dangerous territory. In 2020, the organizations noted a big increase in calls compared to previous years, largely due to the pandemic pushing more people to explore the outdoors. BC ground search-and-rescue teams were called out a record 1,959 times—a 25% increase over the annual average of 1,500 calls. 

While not all of these calls were responding to missing people, the higher number did push teams to their limits. 

President and search manager of the Cowichan Search and Rescue Jamie Tudway-Cains told Capital Daily their team responded to 52 calls in 2020, an increase from about 45 the year before. While not a big increase, Tudway-Cains says the numbers go up every year. When he started 10 years ago, the team was averaging about 25 calls per year. 

He says they’re searching for more and more people who get lost in the wilderness because they were relying too much on technology—sometimes the battery on their phone or navigation system dies, or they lose cell service.

“There is no common reason for a rescue,” Tudway-Cains said. “Whether somebody falls off a cliff or somebody falls in the river, there’s no rhyme or reason for the rescues.”

Tudway-Cains says in the 10 years he’s been with the team, the subject of his team’s searches has always been found—though sometimes it’s not the outcome they were hoping for. 

The statistics show that it is much more rare that a missing person remains undiscovered, but it does happen. Some in BC RCMP’s missing persons system have been presumed dead based on the circumstances of their disappearance, but Manseau says if a body is never recovered, the person will remain in the system indefinitely as a missing person. 

In some cases, bodies are found but are not matched with a missing person. The BC Coroners Service currently has the unidentified human remains of 19 different people found on Vancouver Island listed on an interactive map. Seventeen of the 19 unidentified remains are listed as male.

Screenshot from BC Coroners Service's Unidentified Human Remains Interactive Viewer. Blue markers are male remains, red are female, and green are unknown.

Missing data

In early April, a video circulating social media showed two individuals, holding branches, making their way to three red dresses hanging in trees on the side of the Old Island Highway near Oyster Bay. One uses a branch to unhook a dress and fling it into the trees. The other jumps up to grab the hem of another dress then ducks behind a bush to discard it. 

When Stephanie Elickus-Rivers saw the video for the first time, it sent chills down her spine. It made her angry, and then it reduced her to tears. 

Elickus-Rivers is from the Wikwemikoong First Nation in Northern Ontario but lives in Campbell River. She has been a driving force behind a project to hang 100 red dresses across the Island, and has been personally hanging dozens of dresses along the highways from Victoria to Port Hardy. 

“In our culture, red is the only colour spirits see,” she said. “So we hang red or wear red so the spirits can see us, and we hang the red dresses so we can call the missing women home.”

This is a movement that is deeply personal to the Campbell River woman. Elickus-Rivers’ sister-in-law was killed in 1992, followed by her close friend and niece. And she, herself, was almost abducted when she was 14 years old and had to fight her way out of a vehicle. 

So, when she saw how the red dresses were tossed aside like trash, Elickus-Rivers was understandably upset. But it also solidified her mission.

For years, she has sought out families of Indigenous missing persons across Canada, and has sat down to listen to and record their stories. Through this process, she has begun to compile her own data on MMIWG. She says having this data is a way to start working towards change and advocate for the missing sisters. 

“First Nations people are on the backburner, and the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Canada, you know, we have to speak for them,” she said. “They’re silenced, they’re gone. They’re missing. And we need to speak for them.”

It’s unclear how many Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or have been murdered across Canada—let alone on Vancouver Island—because accurate data just doesn’t exist. 

In fact, there is “no reliable estimate of the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA persons in Canada,” according to the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

In the most recent available RCMP data, as of April 2015, there were 174 Indigenous women and girls who were missing for 30 days or longer, representing 10% of the 1,750 missing women and girls reported on the Canadian Police Information Centre. However, there is currently no national strategy to collect and share this information. 

And even if data were collected, the national inquiry also states that thousands of disappearances have likely gone unreported over the decades, based on the number of people who shared their stories for the first time for the national inquiry.

In BC, RCMP do not collect race based data, so the province does not have its own statistics on how many Indigenous people go missing each year. 

“We’re promoting bias-free policing, so we don’t track things by race,” Manseau said. “So, if somebody goes missing, no matter their nationality, faith, colour, it doesn’t get added onto the file.”

However, Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, says this data is essential.

“We need to know how big the problem is, how many of our women have gone missing,” she said. “Unless we have actual statistics to bring to the RCMP’s attention, the government’s attention, they’re not going to want to do anything.”

The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council has begun keeping its own records—which show 53 murdered women and 2 missing—but Sayers says it’s unrealistic for every nation to do this simply because of the amount of time and resources it takes. 

But with or without this data, she says, it’s also crucial that governments take action to address core issues at the First Nation level. She says many nations don’t have enough housing or adequate daycare or work. So, some women leave, but leaving can sometimes lead them to a more vulnerable situation.  

There is also generally a lack of services to help women who are affected by addiction or who are stuck in an abusive household. When money does come from the government to fund these services, Sayers says, it’s often not ongoing and may not be enough to make a difference long-term. For example, in April, the province announced $1 million in grant funding to be distributed to 23 rural and remote Indigenous communities and organizations throughout the province to help combat overdoses. Provincial data from January to October 2020 shows that First Nations people died from overdoses at a rate 5.5 times higher than other BC residents.  While this funding is essential, it only helps in the short-term.

“I really wish the [provincial and] federal government would address some of those basic needs in our communities, so that we can keep our women, you know, at the communities and being a valuable community member,” Sayers said. “I often go back to, are they running away from a violent situation or something else?”

Many of the Island’s First Nations communities are isolated and rural, so getting from place to place can also be difficult, especially for those who don’t have a car. 

In February, remote communities were concerned after Wilson’s Transportation announced that the Vancouver Island Connector would be suspended after the COVID-19 pandemic heavily affected their revenue. Bus service has since resumed thanks to a $27 million grant from the provincial government to support inter-city bus service. 

Indigenous communities were amongst the hardest hit by the temporary suspension of the service, which emphasized a serious gap when it comes to transportation in and out of these small, more remote communities. And these transportation options could, quite literally, mean the difference between life and death. 

“If there’s no busing services, they’re out on the highways hitchhiking,” Sayers said. “Typically, we lose a lot of women that way, because they’re easy prey that way; they’re vulnerable for anybody who might come along and have negative intentions towards them.”

Sayers’ concerns are based largely on the tragedies of the Highway of Tears, a 724-km stretch of the Yellowhead Highway 16. This section of road has been where many Indigenous women have disappeared from, or have been found murdered. 

There is also no accurate number on how many women and girls have been taken on the Yellowhead, but some of those cases date back over 50 years. The time for action has long passed, Sayers said. 

“Our families don’t give up looking for their loved one,” she says. “Because if we give up, nothing will ever change.”

Lisa Marie Young

May 5 would have been Lisa Marie Young’s 40th birthday.

For Carolann Bosma, this date comes with the knowledge of all the things that she has missed out on celebrating with her foster sister over the past 19 years. 

“If she was here, because she’s the oldest, I would be making fun of her,” Bosma said. “It brought me to a place of kind of being really sad, in a sense of like, I can’t, you know, go buy Depends diapers or something funny, you know what I mean?”

Bosma met Young just after her 16th birthday when she moved into Lisa’s foster home. They lived together for about three years, but the pair, along with their third foster sister, remained close even after they aged out of the system. Bosma describes Young as confident and someone who always owned her own space, even as a teenager.

Young disappeared on June 30, 2002. The 21-year-old Indigenous woman had been at a house party with friends when she got into the vehicle of a man she had just met to get something to eat. She hasn’t been seen since. 

Young’s biological parents realized something was wrong that morning when she wasn’t answering her phone. Young’s foster parents were called, followed by Young’s friends. No one knew where she was. 

“It was a bit of shock, fear, because one thing about Lisa was that she was very reliable,” Bosma said. 

The last time Bosma talked to her, she remembers Young had been discussing her upcoming move into a new apartment. She was excited, and friends and family were coming to help her. She wouldn’t have left them hanging. 

Lisa Marie Young went missing on June 30, 2002.

A friend of both Bosma and Young, Cyndy Hall, remembers the shock of the day, all these years later. Since Young’s disappearance, Bosma and Hall have both become advocates for MMIWG. Hall says she also helps families who have had a loved one go missing. She puts up posters, posts in Facebook groups, and helps families who need guidance. 

Hall says these families are often overwhelmed and sad. Sometimes, the families feel frustrated with the investigation process, she says, especially when the subject of the case is Indigenous.

When Young’s mother first filed a missing persons report in 2002, she did not initially tell RCMP that her daughter was Indigenous. Bosma said she had been afraid that racist stereotypes would come into play and her daughter’s case would not be taken seriously.

Ultimately, the case wasn’t properly investigated anyway, Hall said. 

“When Lisa first went missing, I really think the RCMP dropped the ball,” she said. “I do think for quite a few years the file wasn’t investigated as much as it could have been.”

Paul Manly, MP for Nanaimo-Ladysmith, told Young’s story in front of the House of Commons in October. Referencing a recent podcast series on Young’s disappearance by journalist Laura Palmer, he describes the flaws in the RCMP’s investigation, saying the “RCMP did not take this case seriously, making numerous mistakes and failing to act on important tips and suspects.” This includes not conducting a ground search until two and a half months after Young went missing. 

The National Inquiry called for the creation of a task force to assess, reopen, and review the investigations of outstanding cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Manly called on the House to heed the calls immediately, starting with Young’s case. 

“If it happens, Lisa’s file will be the first,” Hall said. “We were looking for a hero and we found Paul.”

Since Palmer’s podcast was released, there has been a renewed effort on Young’s case. A new team has taken over the file, and, in December, RCMP conducted searches of two properties related to the case. Hall says she regularly communicates with the current investigators. 

“I thought it was going to be last year we find her, but I think it’ll be this year. I feel super confident,” she said. “We still have a lot of people coming forward that haven’t come forward before. And they all have a piece of important information.”

More than a statistic

On May 3, dozens of people stood on sidewalks in communities across Vancouver Island, holding handmade signs with the words, “We stand for Lisa.”

This is yet another sign of the renewed attention on Young’s story, brought about by the podcast. For the people who knew and loved Young, this show of love and support is incredibly heartening.

“I want to remind people that she’s missing and she’s very loved,” Bosma said. “Because a lot of people can get kind of caught up in the story of her disappearance and who she was as a person to get lost. And for me that’s very important.”

It’s also important to Holling that people know who his son was. Jordan, like Young, is more than just a statistic. When he disappeared, Jordan was a smart teenager, gearing up for graduation. He was really good with computer programming and Holling thinks he would have pursued it as a career. 

Throughout the past three years, Holling has remained adamant that Jordan would not have disappeared of his own volition.

But for Holling, as more time goes on with no word on his son, the more discouraged he feels. 

Years into the investigation, he says the RCMP officers on the file are becoming harder to get in contact with—much harder than when things were newer. 

So he has taken to following leads himself. Just last year, he finally succeeded in accessing his son’s Facebook account and says he found some information he thinks could be really important; he wouldn’t elaborate. He’s also talked to some people who, as far as he knows, police have not yet spoken to.

Holling still gets tips sent to him once in a while—most of which he is thankful for, but some he finds disheartening. Jordan is on Holling’s mind every day, and the unknowing doesn’t get easier.

“You don’t know if he’s alive. You don’t know if he’s dead. You don’t know if he’s suffering. You don’t know if he’s held against his will somewhere. You don’t know.

“That’s the hardest part.”

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