In the Enoch Cree Nation, Sunday marks the third day that family, friends, and community members searched for the remains of 30-year-old Billie Johnson in a row.
Johnson was last seen in Edmonton in the area of 113 Street and 107 Avenue on the evening of Dec. 24. Four days later, she was reported missing.
Police at the time said the disappearance of Johnson was out of character and considered suspicious. Although she has not yet been found, last week, police charged a man with second-degree murder in the case and said Johnson is presumed dead.
Large groups of people were meeting at the River Cree Casino parking lot at 10 a.m. beginning on Friday, then driving to a site filled with thick bush and heavy snow. The whole time, it has been bitterly cold, with wind chills making it feel like it’s in the -30s.
Kiara Omeasoo and Arianne Snakeskin, Johnson’s sisters, spent long hours hoping to find something.
Snakeskin said that “It’s a lot to absorb, and you really need to try and get enough rest… Because you have to give a lot of yourself to this, and it drains your spirit.”
Omeasoo said that “I feel like we are getting closer every day we are coming out here. The Enoch band members are coming forward and giving us tips and information… they are really helping out and they bring ATVs.”
Community members and restaurants have also been supplying volunteers with food donations for the search.
The family is critical of the Edmonton Police Service’s reaction to the case of Johnson, saying that when they reported her missing, police did not take action quickly enough.
EPS was on the scene searching the area on Sunday. The Search and Rescue Management Unit, along with five cadaver dogs and two search dogs, were part of their team. Police said they encourage owners of rural homes to check their properties and report suspicious things.
Omeasoo said that “I feel that the Edmonton police could have acted faster, help my family at least, giving us tips.”
Sunday’s search also falls on a day when cities across the country recognize Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Many events were made virtual this year to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some cities like Calgary were able to hold a walk.
There, people held frames and red silhouettes to honour lives lost.
Valentine’s Day Women’s Memorial March organizer Chantal Chagnon said that “I think it’s important to keep those stories and those families front of mind and strive for justice.”
Judith Gale with the Bear Clan Patrol Edmonton Beaver Hills House group has been helping with searches for Billie Johnson extensively. The connection to marches and the search is painful.
Gale said that “This history has been going on for a long time in Canada, and we see it every day and we are seeing it more and more, and so it’s not getting better it’s on the rise and it’s got to stop.”
Gale hopes the person responsible will come forward and tell the police where Johnson is.
Gale added that “Please tell us where you put her. We need to know, the family needs closure — her children need closure, please.”
As far as the Johnson sisters, they never thought they’d be in this position. And though their grief, their hearts go out to other families experiencing such a terrible loss of a loved one.
They also want more attention and focus paid towards MMIWG.
Omeasoo said that “When I think of everything she had to go through and how she left, it’s very overwhelming, it’s heartbreaking and it’s sad… And not only that, all these families that are still grieving and in pain from experiencing the same thing… It’s devastating.”
Snakeskin said that “Our family just wants to say, that it doesn’t matter if Billie had addictions or not, it doesn’t matter if anybody had addictions. It doesn’t matter, because nobody deserves to be murdered and disposed of, they’re human beings.”
At the beginning of January, the police made a plea for information about a pickup truck and its driver, whom they described as a person of interest in the investigation.
The EPS said on Wednesday afternoon that 35-year-old Kenneth Courtorielle was arrested one day earlier in St. Albert. The man arrested and charged is the person of interest they were looking for in relation to the disappearance of Johnson, police confirmed.
Courtorielle’s next court appearance is March 5.