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Living in fear of being written off as another ‘high-risk’ aboriginal woman

Melissa Herman in Snye Park in Fort McMurray on March 6, 2015.

Peter Scowen/The Globe and Mail

This story is part of an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation into hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.

Melissa Herman takes the usual precautions when she goes for an early-morning run along the Snye River. She wears a bright yellow shell and brings along her bounding dog, a high-energy mashup of husky and chocolate lab named Charlie. But then she takes a further step, calling her brother and telling him when she's running and the route she'll take, so that someone knows where she is.

It's not because Fort Mac is particularly unsafe, even in Ms. Herman's downtown neighbourhood next to the infamous Syncrude Towers. Running through Snye Park is no more dangerous than going for a jog through one of Toronto's leafy ravines. What troubles Ms. Herman, 28, is that, if she were actually to go missing or be murdered, she would be written off by the RCMP and by society as just another "high-risk" aboriginal woman.

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"I'm scared that if something happens to me, they're going to be, 'Oh, why was she jogging on that trail at 6 o'clock in the morning? High-risk behaviour!' It's so real," she says. "I think that's why I try to present myself the way that I do, because if I do [go missing] I don't want to be the 'high risk.' I don't want that in my profile at all."

The possibility of going missing or being found dead is an ugly fact of life for aboriginal women. It happens at an alarming rate – an RCMP report in 2014 said that 1,017 aboriginal women were murdered and 164 went missing between 1980 and 2012. Aboriginal groups, including the Native Women's Association of Canada, and several provinces have been calling on the federal government to launch a national inquiry. Earlier this month, the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women added its voice to that chorus. The Conservative government has refused.

According to the RCMP, aboriginal women made up 16 per cent of the women murdered in Canada, vastly out of proportion with their 4-per-cent share of the country's female population. The proportions are even more out of whack in Alberta. It was the province or territory with the highest number of murdered indigenous women in the report – 206. Indigenous women make up approximately 3.1 per cent of the provincial population, based on 2011 census data, and yet accounted for 28 per cent of the murdered women in Alberta from 1980-2012.

In the most stark terms, if you are an aboriginal woman in Alberta, you are nearly 10 times more likely to be murdered than a non-aboriginal woman.

Ms. Herman is the single mother of a 10-year-old girl. She studies aboriginal entrepreneurship at Keyano College in Fort McMurray and works full-time as a student assistant in the college's development department. It's a job that lets her take time off to attend her daughter's science fairs and other school activities.

She lives a busy life, sharing one of Fort Mac's expensive rents with a friend. She and her daughter often return to Janvier, the native reserve about 90 minutes south of Fort McMurray where her mother was born, to see family and spend time in the bush.

Ms. Herman's life hasn't always been this quiet, though. As a teen she was homeless, drinking, taking drugs and avoiding school. It was after her daughter was born that she started focusing on her education and work. Even after that, though, there were times she was employed but still had to sleep on a relative's couch with her daughter because she couldn't afford housing. It was always a struggle.

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"My thing is trying to present myself in a way where I would be respected and would have some value," Ms. Herman says. "Because I don't think there is any value. Even with what I feel like I've done – I'm educated, I'm well-rounded – I've still had people call me a 'squaw.' I've still had people tell me just the most ignorant thing where you're just…" Her voice trails off.

The problem, as Ms. Herman and many others see it, is that the RCMP have been too quick in the past to write off the missing and dead as "high-risk" on the grounds they were unemployed and/or homeless, and abused drugs and alcohol. The 2014 report labelled these "risk factors contributing to their disappearance."

This has left the family and friends of victims convinced the Mounties see their missing daughters, wives and sisters as the authors of their own misfortune, and not a high priority.

The Mounties are willing to admit this was true in some cases. Vickey Hulm, the sergeant in charge of the province's full-time missing-persons unit in Edmonton, said in an interview that the distrust "may have come through my organization through history."

"Absolutely I understand that feeling," Sgt. Hulm said when told of Ms. Herman's perception that native women are of little importance to the RCMP. "What you heard is not foreign to us." When asked what she would say to Ms. Herman if she met her, she said, "I'd apologize to her that she feels that way."

Amnesty International says this "high-risk" labelling, combined with racism and stereotyping, denies "the dignity and worth of Indigenous women." The human-rights group also blames federal government policies, especially residential schools, for breaking up families and "leaving many Indigenous women and girls extremely vulnerable to exploitation and attack."

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In Fort McMurray, if you meet an aboriginal man or woman in their 50s or 60s, there is a high likelihood that they were forced by Ottawa, with the help of the RCMP, into residential schools at ages as young as six.

"This was not 100 years ago," Ms. Herman points out. "The last residential school closed in the '80s in Alberta. So when people say, 'Get over it…' "

The disproportionate number of women and girls who've been murdered or gone missing in Alberta also means that everyone in the province's aboriginal communities knows a victim or the family of one. Ms. Herman was friends with Amber Tuccaro, a 20-year-old woman from Fort Chipewyan who disappeared outside Edmonton in 2010 after travelling there from Fort McMurray – where she was living – with her son and a friend.

Ms. Herman was a news reporter at a local radio station at the time and remembers thinking something was off about Ms. Tuccaro's disappearance. She says she wanted to continue airing stories about Amber afterwards, but her news director felt it was old news.

"After Amber went missing, I started going through all the databases and I had a folder of 11 missing or murdered women from Fort McMurray since the '90s," Ms. Herman recalls. "I had this little folder and they would make fun of me for [it]."

Ms. Tuccaro disappeared in August, 2010, and then in October so did Janice Desjarlais, a local homeless woman. The RCMP said it had video surveillance footage of Ms. Desjarlais and her boyfriend climbing into a dumpster in downtown Fort McMurray. They were looking for a place to sleep. In the morning, only the boyfriend is seen leaving, and then a garbage truck comes and empties the dumpster.

The police did a nine-day search of the local landfill but found nothing. Janice Desjarlais, 35, simply disappeared. The boyfriend, who reported she was missing, was never a suspect.

Ms. Herman recalls the attitude at the time of Ms. Desjarlais's disappearance as, "Oh, Janice was drunk and she climbed in a dumpster. What do you expect to happen?"

Two years and a month after Ms. Tuccaro disappeared, her case changed to a murder investigation when some of her remains were found in the woods near Leduc, Alta. The RCMP has since admitted that "initial elements of the investigation were mishandled" after her disappearance – an admission that came last year after Amber's mother, Vivian Tuccaro, filed a complaint against the RCMP detachment in Leduc for failing to conduct a thorough investigation.

Sgt. Hulm said that since Ms. Tuccaro's disappearance, the Edmonton-based missing-persons unit has begun triaging new cases on a daily basis, rather than weekly. If the team spots anything unusual or in need of follow-up, it will contact the relevant RCMP detachment immediately.

"I can't say for sure, but if we'd had that kind of triage when Amber was missing it might not have gone where it did," Sgt. Hulm said.

It will be a long time before Ms. Herman has faith in the RCMP. And it's a message she passes on to her daughter.

"I want to make sure she knows that nobody is going to look out for her more than her. Don't depend on the RCMP. Yes, you call them, but don't put all your eggs in one basket. You can do whatever you want and they're not going to protect you.

"I refuse to be a statistic," she added. "I'm not going to be that person. The more stuff like Amber happens, the more motivated I am to [make sure] that didn't happen for nothing."

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