Stephanie Harpe lives one province away from where five-year-old Frank Young from the Red Earth Cree Nation disappeared, but as an Indigenous woman she feels it is her duty to help.
Harpe said Indigenous communities across Canada are often the ones leading the search for their missing.
They share photos and tips on social media, and raise awareness through Aboriginal Alert, a grassroots website that provides up-to-date information about missing Indigenous people.
“We’re doing a lot of the work ourselves,” said Harpe, a member of Fort McKay First Nation in northeastern Alberta and a missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls activist based in Edmonton.
But Indigenous groups say they can’t continue to do it alone.
In recent weeks, advocates have increased their call for a national Indigenous alert system as the search for Frank continues in northern Saskatchewan.
The boy was last seen April 19 at a playground in the Red Earth community.
“There’s a lack of awareness, and when an Indigenous person goes missing, it’s not taken seriously,” said Aly Bear, third vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations.
“It’s just on us, and we make the posts on Facebook, but it’s not the same as alerting the whole community.”
The federation, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, said an Indigenous alert system is needed because Amber Alerts don’t apply to all missing persons.
Amber Alerts are sent out on cellphones, television and radio to notify the public and ask for help in locating an abducted child believed to be in danger.
In the case of Frank, RCMP did not issue an Amber Alert because, they’ve said, there’s no evidence to suggest he was abducted.
“We all feel very let down. We feel forgotten and we feel highly targeted as well,” Harpe said. “That is because we never see justice. We never see support.”
Studies across Canada show Indigenous people, especially women, disappear at a disproportionately higher rate than white people or other visible minorities.
The Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police is one of a few policing bodies that report statistics on missing persons. Its latest data indicates that almost 45 per cent of people who vanished between 1940 and 2020 were Indigenous, despite representing just over 16 per cent of the population in a 2016 census.
“This is the real life of an Indigenous mother, an Indigenous father, who have to go through this constantly. It’s heartbreaking,” Harpe said.
“We’re not seeing any kind of change for the very oppressed Indigenous peoples in this country.”
Earlier this year, Washington state proved Indigenous alerts are possible. In March, it passed a law to create a network to help identify and locate missing Indigenous people.
When activated, an alert broadcasts information about a missing person on message signs and in highway advisory radio messages. It also provides details through news releases to local and regional media.
Harpe and Bear said they would like a similar model in Canada.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said it’s a conversation worth having.
“Whether it’s an Indigenous Amber Alert, or enhancements to the Amber Alert that we have, that may be a conversation our minister (of policing) could have with the RCMP potentially,” Moe said last week.
“Any time there’s opportunity for us to enhance some of the procedures around missing children … it’s worthy of a discussion.”
Saskatchewan RCMP Insp. Murray Chamberlin said the RCMP would be open to talks and willing to help bring in some type of separate Indigenous notification.
“But obviously the feasibility of that would have to be researched and conversations would have to take place amongst all the partners,” he said.
Harpe said having Indigenous alerts would be huge.
“It could make Indigenous people feel like they matter.”
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2022.