Published:October 3, 2022

-Global News

The families of two First Nations women and two girls who were murdered or found dead in British Columbia are calling for more police accountability in the handling of their cases.

Relatives of Tatyanna HarrisonChelsea PoormanNoelle O’Soup and Ramona Wilson joined Amnesty International Canada, Sisters in Spirit and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) in a news conference Monday.

Together, they called for systemic change in the way the justice system treats cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people (MMIWG2S), and interacts with their families.

“It continues to be a travesty of justice,” said Kukpi7 Judy Wilson of the UBCIC, whose sister was murdered at a young age.

“The lack of justice and police accountability, the mishandling of these cases, the distrust and discrimination by police needs to end.”

The gut-wrenching cases of Harrison, Poorman, O’Soup and Wilson have broken hearts across British Columbia and raised doubts about police prioritization of Indigenous and vulnerable missing person cases, the seriousness with which tips are treated, and information-sharing between jurisdictions.

Natasha Harrison, Tatyanna Harrison’s mother, said perpetrators are able to exploit these weaknesses and families are often left to resource their own investigations, deepening their trauma.

“When your child goes missing you’re on your own, you have to go look for them yourself,” she said. “That’s not okay — that’s up to law enforcement, they should be doing this job, not the parents.”

Harrison was 20 years old at the time of her death. Unidentified human remains were found in Richmond, B.C. on May 2, and police released a missing person’s report for Harrison the next day.

The remains were publicly identified as Harrison’s on Aug. 6 and police have said Harrison died of a fentanyl overdose in Richmond before she was reported missing.

Between the time she was last heard from at the end of March and the time her remains were identified, however, Natasha said her case was passed between multiple police jurisdictions and “many solid leads,” including one that Harrison was staying in a Vancouver shelter, were never followed up on.

“Tatyanna came into this world with the gift of gab and a deep love for learning. She had a courageous spirit and she wasn’t afraid to speak up even if she was afraid. She was the first one to help anyone in need,” her mother said.

“We need to end the careless disregard for human life based on race, stigma and class. All humans deserve justice and we need to do better as a society.”

According to Statistics Canada,16 per cent of female homicide victims between 1980 and 2014 were Indigenous women, who make up less than five per cent of Canada’s population. In 2014 alone, Indigenous women were killed at a rate nearly five times higher than non-Indigenous women.

In 2019, the National Inquiry Into MMIWG released 231 Calls to Justice to crack down on the crisis, and in June last year, a federal working group released a National Action Plan to address them. Since then, advocates say little meaningful progress has been made.

“We have so many grandmothers today raising the children of our loved ones that went missing and we have so many nieces and nephews missing,” said Ramona Wilson’s sister Brenda.

“Their aunties — they only know them through the pictures that they see and the vigils that we do … how many times do we have to put it out there before they start listening, before there’s action?”

Wilson was 16 years old when she disappeared after trying to catch a ride to a graduation party in Smithers, B.C. on June 11, 1994. Her body was found nearly a year later in a wooded area north of the local airport, not far from the province’s notorious Highway of Tears.

The case remains unsolved and Brenda said the family bloodline — passed on by women in a matriarchal society — ended with Wilson.

Josie August said the same thing happened with her dear relative Noelle O’Soup, who died at 13, the only daughter in a family of five brothers.

O’Soup was initially labelled a “runaway” by police after she left her Port Coquitlam group home on May 12, 2021. Her body and another woman’s body were found inside a unit of the privately-owned rooming house in Vancouver on May 1, more than two months after the unit’s tenant died suddenly on Feb. 23.

Sources with knowledge of the investigation have told Global News their remains were discovered by building maintenance staff, not the officers investigating O’Soup’s disappearance. The man whose unit they were found in was Van Chung Pham, a man wanted on a Canada-wide warrant for drugging and sexually assaulting a third woman at the time of his death.

Five days before all of their bodies were discovered, Pham had been charged with sexual assault, drug trafficking, and overcoming resistance — administering a drug or a stupefying agent — in connection to an incident that allegedly occurred on Nov. 19, 2020. Between 1994 and 2007, he was convicted 13 times as a result of Vancouver police investigations.

“How was she found dead in a 46-year-old man’s apartment? How did she get unnoticed? How did she get there? How did they not smell or detect two bodies if (Pham) had priors?” asked August.

“Due to the condition of her body, we are now limited to answers.”

In an emailed statement, Vancouver police said they were not authorized to search Pham’s suite, as he died of natural causes, and therefore “there is no likelihood that anyone could have discovered Noelle’s remains.”

A Vancouver police officer, however, is facing a neglect of duty allegation and a probe under the Police Act in O’Soup’s case, and the police investigation into her death remains active.

Sheila Poorman, too, said someone ought to have smelled her daughter’s body decomposing at a vacant Vancouver home, more than a year-and-a-half after she went missing.

Poorman was 24 when she was last seen in downtown Vancouver on Sept. 6, 2020, where she had gone for a night out with her sister. Her skeletal remains were found by contractors doing work on the home on West 36th Avenue on April 22.

Sheila said she called Vancouver police on Sept. 8 that year to report her daughter missing and reveal that she suffered from a brain injury that made her especially vulnerable. Police, however, did not release a missing person’s report for Poorman until more than a week later.

Sheila said she scoured Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside searching for her daughter and hired a private investigator as she watched police put out releases for other missing people, but not Poorman. Her daughter’s body was found in a property that — due to her physical injuries — Poorman could not possibly have found or accessed without help, Sheila added, yet the death was labelled as not suspicious and it took weeks to identify the remains as Poorman’s.

“Why couldn’t anyone smell her decomposing body? What happened to her where parts of her body were missing?” she asked. “Vancouver police had the nerve to publicly say it was not suspicious.”

She described her daughter as a “young lady who had so much dreams,” who loved to take in stray animals and drive around distributing hot chocolate or coffee to those in need.

“This Oct. 12, she would have been 27 years old. Chelsea was a person who persevered through many difficult situations in her life. Her mental health was a major obstacle in her life but she never let that stop her from living her life to the fullest,” said Sheila.

In a written statement, the Vancouver Police Department said provincial policing standards dictate the way it conducts missing person investigations and it consistently solves “more than 99 per cent” of missing person cases.

“We have worked closely and collaboratively with the families of Chelsea Poorman and Tatyanna Harrison to investigate the circumstances of their disappearances,” wrote Sgt. Steve Addison.

“Led by our Major Crime Section, we’ve conducted exhaustive investigations to gather evidence about their last movements in Vancouver.”

Police consider a person’s “state of mind” before releasing a missing person’s appeal, he added, stating that if an individual is at risk of suicide or self-harm, releasing public information could aggravate the situation. Addressing concerns about the length of time it takes to notify families of their loved ones’ remains, Addison said police require DNA analysis to confirm identities, and next of kin are informed immediately afterward.

In its own emailed statement, B.C. RCMP acknowledged the pain and impact of the losses of Harrison, Poorman, O’Soup, and Wilson, and remains committed to determining what happened to them.

“The RCMP is committed to improving relationships with Indigenous communities, supporting survivors and families, and ensuring that investigations are robust, professional and result in justice for the victims and their families,”  wrote Dawn Roberts, the B.C. RCMP’s director in charge of communications.

“Violence against Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit and LGBTQQIA+ people in Canada is an ongoing national tragedy.”

In recent years, Roberts said the RCMP has established a B.C. Police Missing Persons Centre with a dedicated First Nations liaison, trained officers on a trauma-informed investigative approach, and updated its protocols for missing person investigations. Those updates include creating a communications schedule with families and immediate notification of a supervisor when a missing person is high-risk.

The Mounties have also improved information-sharing abilities across multiple jurisdictions and created new reporting standards for “benchmark offences,” which include homicide and high-risk missing persons.

“We are learning from our past mistakes and working hard to overcome historical interactions that have left prolonged feelings of being dismissed,” wrote Roberts.

“Building trust is a shared journey. It’s also bigger than words. We have to show actions. And we must work hard to build and maintain relationships based on trust.”

Anyone with information on the cases of Harrison, Poorman, O’Soup or Wilson is asked to contact the relevant police agency.