There was something in the air, something Bernice Catcheway could feel in her spirit. She felt closer to finding the bones of her daughter Jennifer, who disappeared in 2008. This spot, one of hundreds of areas she’s searched over the years, was different, she told HuffPost Canada from her home in Portage La Prairie, Man.
“All I did was cry,” said Catcheway, recounting her experience of combing through overgrown prairie brush, grass and ground with her husband Wilfred this week. “I had such an overwhelming sadness in that area.”
She was given an anonymous letter and map last week outlining a spot where the writer says Jennifer’s remains are. Their daughter, who is Ojibwe, is among thousands of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIWG) across the country.
On Monday, Bernice and Wilfred travelled to the map’s pinpoint, north of Portage La Prairie. They’ve searched hours this week. And while they have hopes, they’re not too high, Catcheway cautions.
“When I’ve received other tips over the last 12 years, I’ve learned not to get my hopes up. Because I get very disappointed. But I have to go and look — always. I have to believe she (Jennifer) will be found,” she said.
From the search site, Catcheway made an emotional Facebook live post pleading for information on Jennifer’s whereabouts Thursday. The family is offering a $20,000 reward in return and the post has since been shared hundreds of times.
“So many people are dying,” said Catcheway in the post. “They didn’t just go missing. Somebody took them. Somebody stole them.”
The last time she saw or heard from her daughter was on Jennifer’s 18th birthday. Jennifer left a handwritten note reading, “Gone to see my cousin. Be back later. Love you. Put my ice cream in the fridge, I’ll have it when I get back.”
Twelve years have passed with no sign of her but her parents will never give up looking for her, even if they’re doing all the work themselves.
“They (RCMP) dropped the ball from day one. They said Jennifer was probably out on a drunk. That was it for us, so we went out on our own to find her,” said Catcheway.
Jennifer had begun experimenting with cocaine before she went missing, said Bernice, but she wasn’t a street person or addict as some stereotypes have painted her out to be.
Over the years the two have amassed crucial information, through their ground search, interviews, tips and other evidence.
In an email statement to HuffPost Canada, RCMP Manitoba Media Relations wrote that the investigation into Jennifer’s murder remains open and is still under investigation in the Manitoba RCMP Major Crimes Services unit. They also stated they remain in contact with the family.
However, Catcheway doesn’t remember the last time she’s heard from them. She says doesn’t trust the RCMP, because they haven’t helped.
“We’re going to bring her home with or without them. They won’t get any thanks from us.”
Two months after Jennifer disappeared, 24-year-old Amber McFarland also went missing in Portage La Prairie. Bernice and Wilfred joined in on the search. When Bernice witnessed the swift response of the RCMP and community search for McFarland, she wondered why the same efforts weren’t made for Jennifer.
“They had thousands of searchers out, people on horseback, helicopters, ATV’s, boats. The local church had groceries/water bottles piled high to the ceiling…I was kind of hurt. But her (McFarland’s) family are beautiful people with the same pain as us…”
The president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada believes if Jennifer was white, her case would’ve been treated differently.
“If she was a white woman, it would play out a lot different,” said Lorraine Whitman. “We still see systemic racism and discrimination. That starts at the top, in the government, health-care system, school systems, our workplaces. I worry that it’s (discrimination) happened so much now that it’s become the norm.”
She chastised the RCMP for not doing enough to solve MMIWG cases like Jennifer’s and for leaving the pressure on the families to take matters into their own hands.
“Get out and help! This (MMIWG crisis) needs to be desperately dealt with. This has to stop now!”
Manitoba NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine has known the Catcheway’s since shortly after Jennifer disappeared. An advocate for MMIWG, Fontaine said without Jennifer’s parent’s relentless advocacy her case may have faded into forgotten headlines.
“From the very beginning, Jennifer’s case wasn’t taken seriously,” said Fontaine. “Crucial time lapsed in those first couple of days. The most urgent hours in these cases are in the first couple of days.”
Indigenous Peoples in Canada have an inherent distrust of police across the board, she added, however, she believes police institutions have improved over the last couple decades in regards to MMIWG.
“I have seen a change. But they can always do 100 percent better. We have so many cases across this country that haven’t been solved. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters, the only thing these families want, is justice.”
Bernice doesn’t think she’ll live long enough to get justice for her daughter.
“I believe she’ll get justice one day when we meet our Lord. She’s not an animal to be discarded in the wilderness. We’re not too far now from finding her now.”
It’s remembering Jennifer’s smile that keeps them going. “That big smile was who she was. A happy girl, loved her siblings, family. She was so loving, kind and funny.” She kept a T-shirt Jennifer wore and takes it out every now and then to smell, touch and pray. She proudly mentions a red purse belonging to Jennifer with lipstick still inside. She cherishes the connection to her.
“No matter how long it’s been it’s always the same pain. I want to find Jennifer in the way the last time I saw her-but now, I know I’m just looking for fragments of her,” she said, her voice breaking into tears.
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