Warning: This story contains details that may upset and trigger some readers. Anyone affected by the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQIA+ people needing support can call a national toll free crisis line at 1-844-413-6649.
British Columbia’s civilian-led police watchdog has launched an investigation into the death of a beloved Saik’uz First Nation woman whose remains were found, tragically, in a wooded area of the community last month.
Chelsey Heron (Quaw), 29, was last seen leaving her father’s house on the nation near Vanderhoof, B.C. on Oct. 11 — the same day Vanderhoof RCMP were called to conduct a wellness check on Chelsey at a private home.
According to B.C.’s Independent Investigations Office (IIO), Mounties took steps to find the woman, but were unsuccessful.
Chelsey was found dead on Nov. 5.
Later that month, the watchdog received several concerns from the public about the police response to the request for a wellness check. The IIO doesn’t use victims’ names in its releases in order to protect the privacy.
“What we would look at in a case like this is, was there a failure of police to take the appropriate steps in the circumstances that they were facing?” explained Ronald MacDonald, IIO chief civilian director.
“The police have a duty at law to protect human life, so if they’re given information about a situation where someone’s life may be impacted or in danger, they have a duty to take reasonable steps to do what they can to help that person.”
The IIO is charged with investigating what role any police action — or inaction — has had when a civilian is seriously hurt or killed in relation to a police-involved incident. If it believes a criminal offence has been committed, it may refer the matter to the BC Prosecution Service.
MacDonald said he hopes to have findings in this case within six months.
The BC Coroners Service and RCMP are still conducting their own investigations into Chelsey’s death.
In November, after Chelsey’s remains were found, her mother Pam issued a public statement described her daughter as “loved cared for deeply by her family, friends and community.”
“Chelsey had the most amazing spirit, beautiful strength and independence. Most importantly, she had an incredible impact on those in her life. We will not rest until we get answers,” Pam said.
In previous comments, Pam has said Chelsey was deeply connected to her culture and to nature, and loved to walk her dog Pepper outdoors.
Saik’uz First Nation Chief Priscilla Mueller referred a request for comment on this story to Mary Teegee, director of child and family services at Carrier Sekani Family Services. Teegee was not available on Friday.
Chelsey was the second citizen of Saik’uz First Nation to go missing in 2023.
Jay Raphael went missing on Feb. 26, with his disappearance described as “very uncharacteristic” by his family.
Chelsey’s family repeatedly advocated for support finding Raphael, whose whereabouts are still unknown, using attention around Chelsey’s disappearance as a platform.
Meanwhile, Carrier Sekani Family Services and the Highway of Tears Governing Body have called on the B.C. government to rename Highway 16, the “Highway of Hope.” More than 40 women and girls, mostly First Nations, have gone missing or been murdered along the notorious 725-kilometre stretch of road, which passes through Vanderhoof and is sometimes called the Highway of Tears.
This month, Canada launched public consultations on developing a public alert system for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people (MMIWG2S), in recognition of the crisis of violence and crime that has disproportionately affected them for generations. Earlier this year, the House of Commons unanimously backed a motion declaring the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls a Canada-wide emergency.
In 2019, a national inquiry into the MMIWG2S crisis found more than six in 10 Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people have experienced physical or sexual violence. They are also 12 times more likely to be missing or murdered than non-Indigenous women.
Anyone with information on Chelsey’s death is asked to contact the IIO’s witness line at 1-855-446-8477 or fill out the contact form on the watchdog’s website.
— with files from Catherine Urquhart
The Hope for Wellness Help Line offers culturally competent counselling and crisis intervention to all Indigenous peoples experiencing trauma, distress, strong emotions and painful memories. The line can be reached anytime toll-free at 1-855-242-3310.