The family of an Indigenous woman found unclothed and injured in a train yard is criticizing how Winnipeg police investigated her death.
Police said Jaeda Vanderwal, 22, died from blunt force injury with hypothermia as a contributing factor after being struck by two trains on Jan. 5.
“I just want to know why and how she was there, found there, or how she ended up there,” her mother, Natalie Beaulieu said as she wiped tears from her eyes during a news conference at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs’ office in Winnipeg on Thursday.
The family alleges there was evidence pointing to physical and sexual trauma and police moved too quickly when they decided her death was not criminal.
Const. Jay Murray said officers conducted interviews, watched videos and used tracks in the snow to conclude that Vanderwal was alone in the rail yard and no criminal act was committed.
“Her death is a tragedy and we sympathize with the grief that her loved ones must feel at this time,” Murray said.
At some point that evening, Vanderwal went to the entrance of the rail line, dropped some personal items in the snow and made her way through a locked gate, Murray said. She then walked around the area for a while before she was struck by a train.
Murray said it’s believed she was suffering from paradoxical undressing linked to lethal hypothermia and removed her clothing. She began to crawl along the tracks before she was hit by another train.
Police were called to the area around 9 p.m. after train operators found her with serious injuries. She died in hospital.
Manitoba First Nations Police Service officers notified the family in Sandy Bay First Nation, which Murray said is standard protocol for people who live outside the city.
Natalie Beaulieu and Vanderwal’s grandmother, Linda Beaulieu, said they were not shown compassion when they learned of the death. Vanderwal’s aunt, Elyssa McIvor, said they also were not given adequate information about what happened.
“Jaeda deserved better treatment from the Winnipeg police. Instead from the beginning she was like many of our men and women who are thought of just as another Indigenous person who had substance abuse problems that led to their untimely deaths,” she said. “But we are more than that, we are human beings.”
Vanderwal, who was the mother of a two-year-old child, loved to laugh, her family said. Even when people were crying she would find a way to make them smile.
Vanderwal called her mother on the morning of her death and always stayed in contact, her family said. McIvor said it would be completely out of character for her to go wander in a train yard alone.
That’s why the family said they were shocked when no one was contacted by investigators to talk about the hours prior to her death. McIvor said they’ve also been given information from other people who knew Vanderwal which they believe could be important to an investigation.
She said when family reached out to police they were told to contact victim services or the medical examiner.
“In the time of reconciliation, we Indigenous are no better off than when this word became a catchphrase,” she said.
Murray said the family contacted the victim service’s unit. A meeting was arranged but the family didn’t attend. He said any information that may show a crime was committed will be investigated.
He said police Chief Danny Smyth is to meet with the family on Friday.
Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said her death is reminiscent of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous girl whose body was found in a river wrapped in a duvet cover weighed down by rocks in 2014.
He said it is important that police take the time to ensure that Vanderwal’s family gets answers.
“I’m very shocked and dismayed that Jaeda’s life and memory is being treated the way that it is being treated and I’m very disturbed that the family is not getting the support that they should receive.”