A family friend of a Saskatchewan woman found dead in a forested area of British Columbia hopes a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women will look into why police publicize some missing person cases but not others.
Dana Morenstein says Deanna Desjarlais of Saskatoon, who was a sex-trade worker with addiction problems, was twice reported missing earlier this year to police in Vancouver.
Last week, an officer called to tell her family that remains found May 17 in woods near Surrey, B.C., were recently matched to the 27-year-old, said Morenstein.
The body was badly decomposed and had been scavenged by animals. Morenstein said police informed the family that a cause of death hasn’t been determined, but it’s considered suspicious.
She’s now questioning what police did before the remains were identified — and why they never released a missing person bulletin with a photo of Desjarlais to the public.
“No one even knew she was missing,” said Morenstein, a teacher at the Kahkewistahaw First Nation, a reserve east of Regina.
She said when police didn’t take public action, she started a Facebook page to get the word out about Desjarlais and sent flyers to Vancouver agencies to distribute.
“We were getting no help from police,” said Morenstein, who added the national inquiry needs to look at missing persons being publicly identified.
“I think that there are too many missing women’s cases that are dismissed.”
Vancouver police said they seriously investigated Desjarlais as a missing person, even though they didn’t issue a media release. She was first reported missing May 1.
“The information we had was that she was alive and well and potentially not wanting to be located,” said acting Sgt. Brian Montague.
He said the family was notified and the file was closed. It was reopened when Desjarlais was reported missing again in June.
“I guarantee the investigation was handled properly,” Montague said.
Officers look at various criteria when determining whether to put out a news release on a missing person, he said, and it has nothing to do with a person’s race or lifestyle.
Vancouver police get about 5,000 missing person reports every year, and putting out a dozen releases each day would become “white noise,” Montague added.
Surrey RCMP are investigating the death of Desjarlais. On Tuesday, they issued a release asking for the public’s help in the case.
The release noted the serious crime unit was working with police agencies around the province, while the coroner’s office and RCMP forensic investigators were looking into the cause of death.
“The Surrey RCMP is asking anyone who may have seen Ms. Desjarlais in the weeks leading up to May 17th to call us,” says Cpl. Scotty Schumann. “If we can determine her movements during this time, it may assist us in determining what ultimately led to her unfortunate death.”
A funeral home had arranged to transport the remains back to Saskatchewan late Tuesday, said Morenstein, adding Desjarlais will be buried near her mother on the Kawacatoose First Nation.
An aboriginal liaison officer with the RCMP has organized a traditional ceremony to be performed at the site where the body was found to help transition to the spirit world.
Angela Marie MacDougall, director of Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver, has been working with the Desjarlais family. She said why some missing women don’t warrant a public news release needs to be examined.
She said police did send a notification requesting assistance to locate Desjarlais through the B.C. Missing Women’s Network, but it didn’t reach MacDougall’s agency until Sept. 1.