Sunday marks the third day in a row family, friends and community members searched for the remains of 30-year-old Billie Johnson in Enoch Cree Nation.
Johnson was last seen in Edmonton the evening of Dec. 24, in the area of 113 Street and 107 Avenue. She was reported missing four days later.
At the time, police said Johnson’s disappearance was out of character and considered suspicious. While she has still not been found, police charged a man with second-degree murder in the case last week and say Johnson is presumed dead.
Starting Friday, large groups of people have been meeting at the River Cree Casino parking lot at 10 a.m., then driving to a site that is filled with thick bush and heavy snow. It’s been bitterly cold the whole time, with wind chills making it feel like it’s in the -30s.
Johnson’s sisters Kiara Omeasoo and Arianne Snakeskin have spent long hours hoping to find something.
“It’s a lot to absorb, and you really need to try and get enough rest… Because you have to give a lot of yourself to this, and it drains your spirit,” Snakeskin said.
“I feel like we are getting closer every day we are coming out here,” Omeasoo said.
“The Enoch band members are coming forward and giving us tips and information… they are really helping out and they are bring ATVs.”
Community members and restaurants have also been providing food donations to the search volunteers.
“It’s terrifying what we are going through. I go to bed at night, and I think about my sister, that she is still out here laying there suffering,” Omeasoo said.
The family is critical of the Edmonton Police Service’s response to Johnson’s case, saying police didn’t take action quickly enough when they reported her missing.
EPS was on scene Sunday searching in the area. Part of their team included the Search and Rescue Management Unit along with five cadaver dogs and two search dogs. Police said they encourage rural home owners to check their properties and report anything suspicious.
“I feel that the Edmonton police could have acted faster, help my family at least, giving us tips,” Omeasoo said.
A sad connection: MMIWG
Sunday’s search also falls on a day when cities across the country recognize Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Many events were made virtual this year to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some cities like Calgary were able to hold a walk.
There, people held frames and red silhouettes to honour lives lost.
“I think it’s important to keep those stories and those families front of mind and strive for justice,” Valentine’s Day Women’s Memorial March organizer Chantal Chagnon said.
Judith Gale with the Bear Clan Patrol Edmonton Beaver Hills House group, has been helping with searches for Billie Johnson extensively. The connection to marches and the search is painful.
“This history has been going on for a long time in Canada, and we see it everyday and we are seeing it more and more, and so it’s not getting better it’s on the rise and it’s got to stop,” Gale said.
“It’s been so difficult because we know that she is out there… We feel her out there.”
Gale hopes the person responsible will come forward and tell police where Johnson is.
“Please tell us where you put her. We need to know, the family needs closure — her children need closure, please,” Gale said.
As for Johnson’s sisters, they never thought they would be in this position. Even through their grief, their hearts go out to other families experiencing a losing a loved one in such a horrific way.
They also want more focus and attention put towards MMIWG.
“When I think of everything she had to go through and how she left, it’s very overwhelming, it’s heartbreaking and it’s sad… And not only that, all these families that are still grieving and in pain from experiencing the same thing… It’s devastating,” Omeasoo said.
“Our family just wants to say, that it doesn’t matter if Billie had addictions or not, it doesn’t matter if anybody had addictions. It doesn’t matter, because nobody deserves to be murdered and disposed of, they’re human beings,” Snakeskin said.
In early January, police put out a plea for information about a pickup truck and its driver, whom they described as a person of interest in connection with the investigation.
On Wednesday afternoon, the EPS said 35-year-old Kenneth Courtorielle was arrested in St. Albert a day earlier. Police confirmed the man arrested and charged is the person of interest they were searching for in relation to Johnson’s disappearance.
Courtorielle’s next court appearance is March 5.