ENOCH CREE NATION, Alta.—There is no word for goodbye in Cree.
Instead people say êkosi mâka, or “That’s it for now.”
The belief is that loved ones will always find each other, even if it’s in the spirit world.
It’s a thought that brings Joanne Sharphead-Arcand some comfort as she walks through a sprawling farmer’s field on the Enoch Cree Nation, solemnly stepping between freshly harvested rows of wheat that stretch endlessly into the horizon. Her brother, who went by Billy Jay, was last seen walking down a dirt road not far from here.
That was 19 years ago.
Her family has been looking for him ever since.
The questions surrounding her brother’s disappearance hang heavy in Sharphead-Arcand’s mind. He was 36 when he went missing.
“During one of the searches I thought — am I gonna spend the rest of my life walking these fields?” says Sharphead-Arcand, looking down at her shirt.
It’s emblazoned with a picture of Billy Jay and the words: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Men.
In 2020, there were 201 Indigenous victims of homicide nationwide — 81 per cent of which were men. An Indigenous man is about four times as likely to be a victim of homicide when compared to an Indigenous woman and seven times as likely as a non-Indigenous male.
This number is higher than in previous years as the number of Indigenous men who died by homicide reached its highest in 2020 since 2014. From 2014 to 2019, they were about three times as likely to die by homicide as Indigenous women.
But Sharphead-Arcand says Indigenous men and boys rarely get the same attention and sympathy from the public, or in how they’re portrayed in the media.
For the past two decades, her family has been consumed by questions for which they worry they’ll never have answers. They question how Billy Jay may have died, who may have killed him, or if he died by suicide.
They are torn by the thought they could have done more to help him.
And most pressingly, perhaps — where are Billy Jay’s remains?
“I tell people it’s like I’m living in a nightmare and I can’t get out,” says Sharphead-Arcand. “I think about my brother. And I feel guilt, too; I always say to myself, ‘I should have been a better sister. I should have looked out for him more … If he killed himself, I should have helped him to not kill himself.’
“But he was troubled. What could I do? I wasn’t healthy myself. So how could I have helped him?”
On a sunny Saturday, Sharphead-Arcand, her mother and members of the Search and Rescue Dog Association of Alberta are on Enoch Cree Nation, just west of Edmonton, preparing to trudge through thickets of bush next to a large pond. It’s one of the few corners of the reserve they have yet to search.
The searches don’t get any easier for the family. These days, Billy Jay’s mom, Peggy Johnson, stays in the truck — her legs are too weak to trudge through the mud.
“My insides are just vibrating. Half scared, half sick,” she responds to Sharphead-Arcand when she asks if she’s doing OK.
“In a way I think I don’t want to find him,” Johnson says. “But I do want to find him. I go back and forth.”
This will be one of the last ground searches the family will conduct, with a ground radar search planned for October.
“I want to try and have something of a life,” says Sharphead-Arcand. “It’s come to the point where I’m emotionally, spiritually, physically exhausted from doing it. Whether we’re walking in the fields or ditches, to sitting on the computer for like 10 hours a day … I would like for us to have some kind of life other than the horrifying thoughts of my brother being murdered and discarded like garbage.
“If this is to be our last search, I want it to end knowing that I tried everything humanly possible to find him.”
With no knowledge of how he died, she clings to memories of how he lived — she describes him as generous, kind and loving, someone who trusted too much and was sometimes vulnerable as a result.
He was also a grass dancer, and was delving more into traditional Indigenous culture at the time of his death.
Billy Jay was also troubled. Their mother attended residential school for 11 years and they experienced an unstable childhood due to her struggles with alcohol. Billy Jay left home at a young age and grappled with substance use for much of his life.
“When he wasn’t using, he was very aware of us and trying to find his way in the world,” Sharphead-Arcand says. “But he just couldn’t find it.”
She says he put too much trust in people.
“He was in a lot of relationships where he was being abused and he would just take it because he loved that person so much,” Sharphead-Arcand says. “In my heart, I think that probably led to his death.”
Sharphead-Arcand has received information over the years that has led her to believe her brother was murdered and that his remains are buried on their reserve. But neither the family nor the RCMP has ever found evidence of foul play.
Overall, Indigenous people represent five per cent of Canada’s population but 25 per cent of all homicide victims. But the plight of men and boys has not seized the nation’s attention in the same way the cause of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has, after the federal government launched a national inquiry into the root causes of systemic violence against Indigenous women and girls in 2016. The inquiry was included as one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 Calls to Action.
Sharphead-Arcand says the last thing her family wants is to diminish the importance of the women and girls, and they acknowledge the power imbalance that makes women more vulnerable to violence, especially from intimate partners.
“I’m just trying to help where I can to say ‘You know what? Our warriors are important, too,’ ” she says.
There are differences in how Indigenous men and women experience violence. Nearly half of Indigenous females 15 and older who were victims of homicide were killed by an intimate partner, which is similar to the rate for non-Indigenous women. Only seven per cent of Indigenous men were killed by an intimate partner.
More than a quarter of Indigenous women experienced sexual violence by an adult during their childhood, compared to 5.8 per cent of Indigenous men. Indigenous women who died by homicide were twice as likely to have been reported missing when compared to Indigenous men.
Indigenous men are five times more likely to be accused of homicide compared to Indigenous women.
While the ways they experience violence differ, families and advocates say the root cause is the same — namely colonization, which manifests in family dysfunction, substance use, discrimination and poverty.
The disparity in how the public perceives these two issues led Simone Tardif, a criminology student at Simon Fraser University, to conduct an analysis of 39 Canadian news articles and their portrayal of missing and murdered Indigenous men and boys.
“My predominant finding was that Indigenous men are overall victim blamed heavily, a well as Indigenous communities and parents tend to be blamed,” says Tardif, who is Afro-Indigenous (Mi’kmaq).
She found that articles reporting on Indigenous men who went missing or who were killed often focused on whether they had committed crimes, used drugs, or were experiencing homelessness or a mental health crisis at the time of their death.
“They use these factors to try and then blame them for the violence that was committed against them,” says Tardif. “Indigenous men, in fact men of colour, often don’t receive as much media attention as other demographics.”
But there are people working to change that.
Jason Gobeil, with Dakota Ojibway Child & Family Services in Manitoba, works every day to change the perception of Indigenous men in the media and to raise awareness of the root causes that lead them to engage in violence or become victims to it.
But he also recognizes that he could have become one of those men.
When he was 16, he says he went out for a bike ride one night near Brandon, Man., when he was thrown into a truck, beaten up by two white men and left out on the highway at about four in the morning.
He remembers walking until he found a payphone on the side of the highway and wondering what he’d done to deserve that.
“Not one person stopped for me as I cried as a 16-year-old walking on that highway with a swollen face … What happened afterwards is I got really mad. And I thought if I could just be a bigger instigator and put my arms up in front of me, and create pathways of destruction, that nobody would ever do that to me again.
“But at the same time, I was hurting so bad that you looked at every possible way out.”
He says he found his way out, and himself as an Anishinaabe man, through strong family support and traditional ceremony. Today he tries to impart those teachings to other men that are lost.
Gobeil, who runs the Ohitika/Ogichidaa (Warrior) Wellness program at Dakota Ojibway Child & Family Services in Manitoba, created the Beaded Tie campaign two years ago as a counterpart to the Red Dress initiative that honours and raises awareness about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Over the past two years, he’s seen others embrace the cause and has sent beaded tie packages to British Columbia and to Ontario.
“We’ve created a ripple in this water right across Turtle Island that has people taking notice and asking that question — why aren’t we talking about it?”
Gobeil says the reason Indigenous men and boys in Canada suffer from higher rates of violence is the same reason Indigenous people in this country experience the highest rates of suicide, substance-use disorder, child apprehension and incarceration: it’s directly linked to intergenerational traumas created by colonization and the residential school system.
It all goes back to fractured families, which started with the government forcefully removing children from their parents. Today, it continues in the overrepresentation of Indigenous kids in government care as well as the disproportionate incarceration rate of Indigenous men and women, he says.
But the legacy affected men differently — too often they’re told that they shouldn’t cry, or that opening up about their experiences is a form of weakness. So they kept it buried deep inside.
“When you talk about root causes of why we see our men struggle, where are the supports?” Gobeil says.
“We’ve always tried to make sure that our children were taken care of, we’ve always made sure that mothers and women had those supports, but men also hurt. Men are also victims of those same things that are happening in society.”
When men feel they have no one to turn to, they often turn to toxic solutions — such as drugs, alcohol or violence, Gobeil says.
Many of the men he works with grew up without a father or experienced violence or substance use in the household. As a result, they never had a childhood of their own.
“Quite often when I’m speaking to the man in front of me, instead I’m speaking to the young boy inside. Because a lot of us never had the chance to be that boy,” Gobeil says. “So let’s have a chance to really speak to that young man for a moment and allow him to let out that hurt, that pain that you’ve been holding in and resenting for so long … And I want to let them go.”
Gobeil helps men to reconnect with themselves and form stronger personal and cultural identities through activities such as counselling, as well as cultural practices like sweats, drumming and getting back to the land.
“If we start opening that door and lead those honest discussions about parenting, about what it means to be fathers, what it means to be uncles and grandfathers and again what it means to be warriors in today’s modern world … Those are the true moments where we’ve seen the light bulbs go off for these men,” Gobeil says. “Where they’ve seen themselves as brothers.”
Gobeil strives to pass on the teachings he’s received from his Elders and knowledge keepers to equip men and boys with greater understanding of their culture, traditions and where they come from.
He has witnessed how it helps men transform from feeling lost and disconnected from society, to understanding the power in being a protector, or Ogichidaa — warrior in Ojibway.
Many of the men are eager to embark on that journey.
“Essentially, they’re calling out for help,” Gobeil says. “Our men are lost. So let’s help them find their way home.”
Bringing Billy Jay home is a dream Sharphead-Arcand has not given up on for nearly two decades.
She’s grateful to the Search and Rescue Dog Association of Alberta for its support over the years, and to her chief and council, strong backers of the cause.
She says her experience with RCMP hasn’t been a good one — she says she feels the family has repeatedly has to push for updates over the years, to the point where they felt they were a nuisance.
In a statement, Alberta RCMP media relations officer Cpl. Troy Savinkoff said the investigation is still a priority for the force. He said he spoke with the primary investigator on Thursday and called the family’s efforts in finding Billy Jay “truly inspirational.”
“Let me express my support to this family who after all this time are actively trying to find their lost loved one … These investigations are often complex and challenging especially after so much time has elapsed,” he said. “One of our greatest tools in investigations such as these are tips from the public who provide information or insight into the disappearance. Our investigators will follow up on all tips with the hopes that they will forward an investigation.”
Sharphead-Arcand hopes her family and Billy Jay’s story can help people form a greater understanding for why Indigenous men and boys get lost in the system and end up victims of violence. She tries to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous men and boys by making and distributing beadwork, posters, shirts and hoodies, and she is also a member of Wetaskiwin Search & Rescue.
She says it’s now time for her and her family to step back and heal.
“It just kind of overtakes me. I want to be a kookum (grandmother), I have a brand new grandson, I want to enjoy that, I want to grow old with my husband,” Sharphead-Arcand says. “There’s so much I hold myself back from because of this.”
And while they’ll be winding down the ground searches after next month, she says she’ll always be committed to finding her brother, whether it’s on Facebook groups and through working with RCMP, or in the great beyond.
“We never say goodbye in our language because it never is … It’s not closure. I’m going to see him again. Just not here.”
Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh