Case reflects under-reported issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal men and boys
Colton Crowshoe’s grandmother, Valerie Crowshoe, has always drawn strength from The Bundle.
Now 66 years old, a respected elder of the Piikani Nation, she raised her children by herself, struggling through night school without food some days to feed her children, and called on The Bundle through prayer, offering tobacco as she’d been taught all her life by her elders, to see her through.
A Bundle is a sacred object or collection of objects in Piikani tradition. Bundle carriers have responsibilities and duties to perform and they and their communities draw strength from The Bundle.
Crowshoe is a residential school survivor. She knows she was robbed of a normal childhood. It has been especially important to her to do her best in raising her children and supporting her grandchildren.
Her grandson, Colton, 18, went missing July 4, 2014, in Calgary’s Abbeydale area. He was last seen with a friend leaving a house party.
Colton’s body was discovered in a retention pond at 16th Avenue and Stoney Trail in Calgary on July 24, 2014, three weeks after he went missing.
The Crowshoe family have a long history of being Bundle carriers, and that tradition taught Colton’s grandmother to take responsibilities very seriously. Valerie Crowshoe says she will never give up trying to find out who murdered Colton.
“With Colton, this should never happen the way they ended his life,” she says. “It was understandable to lose our elders, but today is different, the tables have turned.
“It’s our young ones that we are losing.”
A disturbing trend
Colton Crowshoe is just one among hundreds of Aboriginal Peoples murdered and missing in Canada in the past 30 years — and in numbers that are wildly out of proportion to their percentage of the overall population.
Last November, CBC News reported Statistics Canada data showing that while Aboriginal people make up five per cent of the Canadian population, they account for 23 per cent of homicide victims. The incidence of death by homicide is currently five or six times higher for Aboriginal people than for non-Aboriginal Canadians.
Public and media concern over disproportionate numbers of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls prompted the Canadian government to announce in March a national inquiry into known cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Colton’s family, along with scholars and many Aboriginal activists and leaders, want the scope of that national inquiry extended to include missing and murdered men and boys. Advocates of a more inclusive inquiry note that Aboriginal men and boys are even more likely to go missing or to be murdered than are Aboriginal women and girls.
Advocates also express concern about some police responses to cases of indigenous persons being missing or murdered. The Calgary Police Service’s Aboriginal Liaison Officer acknowledged in an interview that building bridges between CPS members and indigenous people is an ongoing necessity. A Lakehead University scholar says such bridge-building must take into account the effects of historic and intergenerational trauma in Aboriginal communities.
In conversation with the Crowshoes
Colton’s family want the public to know the character of his life, and to know the impacts of his murder and of the continuing failure to identify his killer or killers.
Before an interview with Jimmy Crowshoe, Colton’s father, and other members of the family, the Crowshoes prayed with this journalist for their families, for answers, and reached out to Creator. The smell of sweetgrass and sage filled the room and everyone smudged. Colton’s grandmother Valerie spoke in the Blackfoot language and prayed. Silence and calm prevailed and the love and support the family members had for one another could be strongly felt.
The Crowshoe home was decorated with photos of family, including Colton smiling radiantly.
Jimmy Crowshoe said he did the best he could to raise his three children in a healthy environment. He said in all the 14 years the family lived in Calgary’s Abbeydale district he never imagined what lay ahead of him: the day when his son would not come home, a parent’s worst nightmare.
Jimmy described his son as an outgoing young man, always willing to help out family and friends, spreading kindness and showing a caring heart. He said Colton had graduated from high school and was set to continue his education at SAIT. The young man was in a relationship.
Colton, Jimmy said, had only two encounters with authorities in his lifetime.
“He was a good kid,” he recalled.
“When I see Colton, I see him playing with his toys. I used to drive them to school, all three of them, every day.”
Colton and his brother played hockey and football even though the family was on a tight budget.
“I remember the time they scored their first goals at their hockey tournament,” Colton’s father recalled. “My daughter was always there for her brothers, supporting them.”
Jimmy Crowshoe said he would speak with his children about being patient and saving up for the things they enjoyed. He said he made sure his children knew the Aboriginal culture. They attended the Niipomakii (Chickadee Society), a cultural camp, which offered drumming, dancing and camping.
Jimmy showed Colton’s beaded pouch and choker that he made at the camp.
“That was the time they had teepees, which was really nice, I liked it.” Jimmy remembers Colton always told him, “’Dad, smile, keep smiling.’” He will never forget Colton’s words.
Jasmine Crowshoe, 24, Colton’s older sister, said her strongest memories are of always laughing with her brother.
“Colton had a good sense of humour, always making me laugh, and those were the good times we shared.
“He loved to bake cakes and I would be the one cleaning up afterwards and doing the dishes, but I didn’t mind.”
Jasmine said when Colton went missing, the family searched for him. They made and distributed flyers and asked everyone they knew who might have had contact with Colton if they had seen him.
Jasmine and a cousin encountered two police officers and showed them the flyer with information about Colton being missing.
“The two officers didn’t know of his disappearance and it was their first time hearing of him missing.”
Wyatt Crowshoe, 23, Colton’s brother, said he and Colton “did everything together.”
“We loved to skateboard with our friends. We learned our culture heritage.”
Eric Tail Feathers, a close childhood friend of Colton’s, also especially remembered times skateboarding together.
“Every family allowance after school, we go buy shoes or a skateboard, then after go to the skate park. Those were good times.
“Colton always made me laugh with his Native humour. We understood each other, me, Wyatt, Colton and Marcus, all of us together.”
Petition for equality
Adam Jones, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia (Kelowna campus) and an expert in genocide studies, launched an online petition with his research assistant Penny Handley calling for a gender-inclusive inquiry into murdered and missing Aboriginal persons — an inquiry, therefore, that would include Colton Crowshoe’s and other indigenous men’s and boys’ cases, in addition to the cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Jones’ and Handley’s petition highlights Statistics Canada data showing that 2,500 Aboriginal people were murdered in Canada between 1982 and 2011, out of 15,000 murders overall. Of the 2,500 murdered Aboriginal persons, 1,750, or 71 per cent, were male, and 745 were female. One was “of unknown gender.”
“It is unacceptable,” Jones writes in the petition, “to limit an inquiry or investigation of murdered and missing Aboriginals to Native women and girls alone. Men and boys account for over 70 per cent of total Aboriginal murder victims in Canada.”
Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett has acknowledged that “when you look at the systemic problems and the effects of colonization, the effects of residential school, there is no question that men and boys have also been victims of the system.”
Activists focusing on missing and murdered indigenous persons seek to ensure that police forces across the country take crimes against indigenous persons as seriously as they do crimes against others.
Negative stereotypes interrupt justice
Tanya Johnston, Colton Crowshoe’s aunt, said that in the days after her nephew disappeared, “we pleaded with CPS (Calgary Police Service), telling them, ‘Everyday he called his dad, it was out of character for him not to call.’
“Police laughed at us,” Johnston said.
A CPS official said the Colton Crowshoe case is under active investigation.
Johnston said one police officer told family members immediately after they became concerned about the young man’s whereabouts that Colton “doesn’t want to be found, he’s drinking.”
Johnston said the Crowshoe family contacted Calgary media, but were told they would follow CPS in determining whether a public appeal was in order. Johnston said she believes stereotypes and discrimination have surrounded Colton’s case from the beginning.
CBC News reported Jan. 11 about an inquest into the deaths of seven First Nation students killed over several years in Thunder Bay. Among the seven was Jethro Anderson, a 15-year-old, who disappeared in Thunder Bay in 2000. CBC had reported Nov. 7 that police did not begin to investigate until six days after he was reported missing.
The CBC report quoted lawyer Julian Falconer, who at the inquest cross-examined a Thunder Bay police officer about the delay, as saying, “sadly, there’s a theme — less than worthy victims.”
Dorra Morris, Jethro Anderson’s aunt, said she “called the police every day just to ask if they had any leads, and every time I called, the answer was always, ‘He’s just out there partying like any Native kid.’”
Patty Hajdu, the Member of Parliament for Thunder Bay and federal minister for the status of women, said outside the inquest that a “swirling storm” of racism and discrimination is killing indigenous people in the Thunder Bay area. Hajdu ran a homeless shelter in Thunder Bay before becoming a Liberal MP.
Colton Crowshoe’s family members said in interviews that they have continued talking to Calgary media about the negative stereotypes through which they believe authorities often view Aboriginal people.
A united front
Calgary Police Services said its handling of Colton Crowshoe’s case was under investigation by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), which independently investigates possible cases of misconduct by police services and agencies. One part of the ASIRT review was looking into CPS’ interaction with Colton on Canada Day before the young man disappeared.
Cindy Provost, CPS Aboriginal liaison officer and an 18-year veteran of the CPS, said in an interview that her role is to attempt to build positive relationships between indigenous people in Calgary and members of the Calgary Police Service.
Provost said she believes there should be more than one person working in her role.
“I think in moving forward it would be beneficial to have an educational team. Unfortunately, I am a single Aboriginal liaison officer.”
Provost said an Aboriginal Justice Camp held annually is voluntary, not mandatory, for all Calgary police officers. The camp was founded in the 1990s on Piikani First Nation territory by respected Elder Dr. Reg Crowshoe.
The camp entails a four-day full immersion which includes opportunities for officers to participate in a pipe ceremony and a sweat ceremony. The focus is on improving knowledge and awareness of Treaty rights and gaps that have existed in the justice system between First Nations and indigenous people.
“I never failed to have somebody shed some tears on the course,” Provost said. “It’s a safe place and opportunity to really explore some of the bias on a personal level, and does that transcend to other minorities? Absolutely.”
Provost noted there is a long history of distrust between indigenous people and government authorities in Canada. She said this continues to weigh on relations between police and indigenous people.
“In the late 1700s and early 1800s you had the Treaties being signed and policies of assimilation, colonization and the residential school era, so you have that full century of those policies that were in place to take care of the ‘Indian problem.’”
Provost said she believes a focus on relations between Aboriginal youth and police service members is key to overcoming distrust. She listed half a dozen other needed measures:
· Aboriginal single mothers or fathers need support programs in which elders have a significant role. This is especially important for those who are new to Calgary.
· Aboriginal elders should be given more than just a ceremonial role and should be involved at the beginning of the visioning and development of support programs for Aboriginal families.
· Traditional Aboriginal ways of conflict resolution should be adopted through appropriate agencies and support groups.
· More focus and attention by CPS on meaningful Aboriginal cultural celebrations.
· Understanding Aboriginal youth at a grassroots level in relation to the legacy from Indian residential schools, the legacy of historical trauma, overrepresentation in the child welfare system and overrepresentation in the criminal justice system.
· Cultural awareness programs for CPS members through partnerships with appropriate agencies and individuals.
Provost said one challenge she has faced in trying to improve relations between CPS and Aboriginal peoples is that many indigenous people will not go through the paperwork to file a complaint against CPS if they believe there has been an incident of racism or discrimination. She said she has had only one such complaint filed in the past 10 years of working with CPS.
Patterns of trauma
Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, vice-provost (Aboriginal initiatives) at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and a member and resident of the Chippewa of Georgina Island First Nation in Lake Simcoe, said in an interview that it is vital, in working to improve relationships between indigenous persons and non-indigenous authorities, to understand the impact of historical and intergenerational trauma on indigenous people and communities.
Wesley-Esquimaux and Magdalena Smolewski, an anthropologist and research director at the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, described historical trauma in a 2004 paper prepared for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
“Indigenous social and cultural devastation in the present,” Wesley-Esquimaux and Smolewski wrote, “is the result of unremitting personal and collective trauma due to demographic collapse, resulting from early influenza and smallpox epidemics and other infectious diseases, conquest, warfare, slavery, colonization, proselytization, famine and starvation, the 1892 to the late-1960s residential school period and forced assimilation. These experiences have left indigenous cultural identities reeling with what can be regarded as an endemic and complex form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
Wesley-Esquimaux said when she first encountered historical and intergenerational trauma many years ago, she was frightened by it because she did not understand it. She said she later came to think of it as “the grief of the Nations.”
“There are some lessons that we need to learn about trauma populations,” she said, “and now we’re hit with this [matter of] missing and murdered Aboriginal people and it’s contemporary [trauma], but it is deeply mixed with historical trauma which is unresolved.
“What it definitely needs, especially talking about men and boys, is that there needs to be resources put towards the kind of counselling that will make sense to men and boys as opposed to women and girls.”
Wesley-Esquimaux said there is misunderstanding and miscomprehension among many Aboriginal men as to “what men are, and what men’s roles are and how they can be.
“A lot of that comes from a history of trauma that has never been resolved and never been represented properly.”
The editor responsible for this article is Michaela Ritchie, firstname.lastname@example.org