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Strangers Scour the Land

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May 28, 2009

Strangers Scour the Land

The search for Maisy and Shannon continues

by Maya Rolbin-Ghanie, Dru Oja Jay

KITIGAN ZIBI ANISHINABEG–Maisy Odjick, 17, and her friend Shannon Alexander, now 18, vanished from Shannon's father's apartment in Maniwaki, Quebec, September 6, 2008. Both are from Kitigan Zibi, an Algonquin reserve adjacent to Maniwaki. Since September, neither the Kitigan Zibi Police Services nor the Sûreté du Québec has collected any evidence pertaining to the whereabouts of the two girls. When Maisy and Shannon vanished, their wallets and their money were left behind. The police are not ruling out the possibility that the two girls are "runaways." In addition, the police have repeatedly neglected to communicate with and report back to the two families. The little media attention this case has attracted may be attributed to the constant and determined efforts at media outreach by Maisy's mother, Laurie Odjick.

The two ground searches since the disappearance - December 7, 2008, and May 2, 2009 - were led by Search and Rescue Global 1; both times the Odjick family was the main organizer. According to Search Leader Lawrence Conway, the search for Maisy and Shannon is the first family-organized search he has ever taken part in. Normally, the police call rescue teams and arrange searches.

Indigenous women in Canada are five times more likely than other women to die as the result of violence. The official number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada since 1980 is 520, two-thirds of whom were murdered and about one-quarter of whom are still missing. Roughly half of these murders and disappearances occurred in the last nine years and over 300 cases are as of yet unsolved. Indigenous grassroots activists and communities put the number of cases closer to 1800.

Amnesty International, the United Nations, and the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) have all put forth comprehensive recommendations to the Canadian government to address the violence and discrimination faced by Indigenous women, but so far no action has been taken beyond a small amount of funding allotted for research.

NWAC President Beverley Jacobs points out that even working with a number like 520, taken proportionately that "would equal 18,000 women among Canada's white population. If there were 18,000 white women missing and murdered, it would be headlines. There would be something done immediately."

More than 240 volunteers, mainly from Ottawa, come to help with the search. Amnesty International donates two school buses to help transport people to the site. We are two of four people from Montreal's Missing Justice collective who attend. Shannon's father, Bryan Alexander, orients volunteers.
Volunteers are divided into teams.
Our 15-person team is smaller than the rest, which hold about twenty people each. We drive to a section of the woods in the Kitigan Zibi reserve and line up to receive further instructions. Everybody has been told to bring some sort of long stick with which to poke at the ground and push thick bush out of the way while we search.
Searching through the woods as the Search and Rescue leaders have instructed is difficult and counter-intuitive in the sense that we are supposed to go straight through sharp or prickly obstacles as opposed to around them. It is a foreign mode of interaction with landscapes in general.
Each person is given a number, and instructed to stay in a relatively straight line with the rest of the party, with several meters between each person and their counterparts immediately to the left and to the right. We are told to try to keep ourselves and our teammates in line. Every five to ten minutes, the team must stop and regroup in order to maintain some semblance of order. At times the brush is too thick to see anybody else, but others can always be heard.
We are told to yell "Stop!" any time we see anything that might possibly be a clue. This includes beer bottles, as well as any form of litter that seems in any way unusual. If the team leader sees fit, she radios in a clue that has been found. The "clue" we spent the most time investigating was something that appeared to be a sweater. The police took one look at it and told us it was a towel, and was insignificant.
Many volunteers from the community prepared mass portions of food to feed those searching. Left: Laurie Odjick.
Bridget Tolley tells Missing Justice about her own family's case. Since 2002, when her mother, Gladys Tolley, was struck and killed by a Sûreté du Québec cruiser, she has been calling on the federal government for a public inquiry. "I won't stop if it takes me ten, fifteen years," she says. The police who investigated her mother's case were brothers of the offending officer. No charges have been laid.

Maya Rolbin-Ghanie is an independent journalist and Indigenous solidarity activist living in Montreal. Dru Oja Jay is an editor with The Dominion.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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