First Nations leaders are calling on the RCMP, media and the public to do more to help find two people who have gone missing from the Saik’uz First Nation over the past year.
Jay Preston Raphael, 28, and Chelsey Amanda Quaw (Heron), 29, were last seen at residences on the nation’s land, located about 85 kilometres west of Prince George, B.C., in February and October respectively.
In both cases, family and friends say their disappearance from the community, with an on-reserve population of about 400, is out of character and cause for concern.
“We are calling for more volunteers and resources to help increase search efforts,” Saik’uz First Nation Chief Priscilla Mueller and the advocacy group Highway of Tears Governing Body said in a joint statement Friday.
The organization was formed in 2006 in response to a series of cases of women and girls, many Indigenous, who had either gone missing or been killed along Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert. In total, more than 40 women and girls are associated with disappearances along the 700-kilometre stretch of highway.
The formation of the governing body was one of the 33 recommendations that came from the 2006 Highway of Tears Symposium Recommendations Report, which called for various measures to improve safety in the area.
But Mary Teegee, one of the governing body’s leaders, said the number of missing people shows that more still needs to be done.
“There seems to be little change in responsiveness,” she said. “We need to do better as a community to come together and find our missing loved ones.
“Support your community, support the families, and please help bring Jay and Chelsey home.”
Unusual not to be in touch
Police have put out missing person alerts for both Raphael and Quaw and is appealing to the public for information.
According to RCMP in Vanderhoof, about 15 kilometres northeast of Saik’uz, Raphael was last seen on Feb. 26 walking away from a residence in Saik’uz and has not been heard from since. He is described as being five feet nine inches and 143 pounds with black hair and brown eyes. Friends and family said it is unusual for him to not be in contact.
Similarly, Quaw is believed to have walked away from her father’s home in the early morning hours of Oct. 11 and never returned.
According to her aunt, Tamara DeLong, her dad “thought she was going out to have a cigarette and that she would come right back.”
Quaw is roughly five feet 10 inches tall, weighing 120 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes.
Both cases are still considered missing persons, said B.C. RCMP Staff Sgt. Kris Clark — who is based in Surrey and speaks on behalf of the provincial force — in a written statement to CBC News. If any evidence were to come forward indicating the need for a criminal investigation, attention would shift to “finding those responsible without delay.”
“At this time, the investigations for both Chelsey and Jay continue to be for missing persons, with the ultimate goal of finding them safely,” he said.
Clark also said “while Indigenous people have historically been over-represented amongst missing persons,” RCMP are dedicated to finding people who disappear “regardless of their race or gender” and the Vanderhoof detachment has been “continuously engaging external partners and following up on all investigative leads, while also keeping the family updated with regards to the search.”
Anyone with information in either case is asked to contact Vanderhoof RCMP at 250-567-2222 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477(TIPS).
‘Chelsea is very loved’
In an interview with CBC News, Quaw’s mother described her daughter as an “independent, educated and hard-working woman. She’s loving and caring.”
“Chelsea is very loved,” said Pam Heron.
She said her daughter would usually respond within hours of getting a phone call or text message, so not hearing from her for weeks is really concerning.
Heron is worried her daughter has been stereotyped as a troubled Indigenous girl and said she doesn’t think the RCMP treated her disappearance with enough urgency when she was first reported missing.
“She worked hard. She worked at a mill. She was very educated,” Heron said.
Community gathering held
Speaking at a community gathering held Friday afternoon, Mueller said she feels the local RCMP detachment has done all it can. However, the chief and council are asking for more resources from other regions, as well as the province.
Kayla Mitchell, deputy chief of the neighbouring Witset First Nation, also said more needs to be done.
“Our lost loved ones do not get the media coverage or justice support they deserve,” Mitchell said in a statement of support released Friday.
Charity West, a member of the Kwadacha Nation who recently walked across Canada to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and men, said she often heard the same sentiment from Indigenous people across the country.
“Policing agencies are failing us,” West said. “They are failing us. The media’s failing us too. They do not give us the coverage we need.”