VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Families bond in search for relatives
By Warren Goulding
A two decade long search for a mother who disappeared from her life more than 40 years ago has, despite its frustrations, provided its share of blessings for Lori Whiteman.
Well educated, confident and secure within a circle of loving family and friends, Whiteman has undertaken the search for her mother, Delores Whiteman, with quiet determination. And while she has uncovered scant details about the life of a woman who began her journey on Standing Buffalo Dakota First Nation in the late 1940s before vanishing sometime in the late 1970s or early ‘80s, Whiteman’s relentless pursuit has broadened her perspectives and brought her greater understanding of her Dakota and Saulteaux heritage.
“I don’t mean this to sound harsh, and I love my relatives and know that many of them are concerned about her whereabouts,” says Whiteman who was adopted into an Eastern European immigrant family when she was three.
“But I have wondered if it wasn’t for me coming back to reconnect with my birth family, that it’s unlikely anyone would have ever really searched for her at all.”
That comment isn’t intended as an indictment of her family, but rather an analysis of a condition that has undermined Aboriginal families, one that too often has led to their portrayal as dysfunctional and uncaring.
“I understand this to be what it is; it’s not about family not caring,” Whiteman explains. “It’s about what has happened to us as Indian people.
“That strong circle of Relationship was eroded and this is just one of the legacies of our colonization as Indian people. It’s also why I feel so strongly about speaking out about it because it raises awareness and I hope that through public consciousness we can start to really examine how many of our people have been allowed to wander away and no one has noticed.”
Whiteman has connected with many other individuals and families who have endured the pain of losing a loved one and not know what became of them. For various reasons, many families have been unable to even initiate a search.
“This translates into lack of caring, but when we are in the midst of our own survival and healing I understand how hard it is to look up and notice what is happening to those around us,” she says.
“I think that is part of what happened in our family.”
Whiteman says she has made thousands of phone calls, searched the Internet and visited various places where it is believed Delores Whiteman may have lived. Since she was adopted, Whiteman met the frustration of being told by officialdom that she had no right to information since she was no longer “legally her child.”
In 1995, the chief of her band, the late Mel Isnana, agreed to file a missing person report on Whiteman’s behalf. That and other contacts by Whiteman led to police in Edmonton and Vancouver being aware of her search. However, it yielded no useful activity, although the RCMP did take a DNA sample from Whiteman when they were in the early stages of investigating the infamous Port Coquitlam, B.C. pig farm of alleged serial killer Robert ‘Willie’ Pickton.
At times, Lori Whiteman is unable to contain the frustration she feels towards the establishment, including police agencies that have been ineffective and seemingly indifferent. It’s a common theme expressed by the families of missing Aboriginal women.
“The police have done what they can; this is what they tell me,” she says. “They have, unwittingly, been harsh and lacking in sensitivity at times. There is information that hasn’t made sense to me, and times when the police have been vague to the point where I was unsure what things were actually done and not done.
“There are other incongruences in my dealings with police, and that has contributed to my frustration and isolated feelings and to the erosion of my trust in the police in working toward dealing with Aboriginal people, especially women,” says Whiteman.
The blessings, or at least reasons to find comfort in what are tragic circumstances, are to be found close to home for Whiteman.
“My family has become my “team”. My kids have always been aware of my mother as a missing person. My husband is a huge support, spiritually and emotionally. He understands and supports me. In the later years of her life, my adoptive mother was a huge supporter, and it was an incredibly moving experience to be her primary care-giver in the last year of her life and to be by her side when she passed away a few years ago,” she explains.
In recent years, Whiteman has connected with people like Gwenda Yuzicappi whose 19-year-old daughter, Amber Redman, disappeared almost two years ago. Amber was last seen in Fort Qu’Appelle on July 15, 2005.
“When Amber Redman vanished, I connected because I knew the family. Amber was a student of mine when I first started teaching on the reserve. I knew Gwenda. Over the course of the months that followed, Gwenda and I began to talk, and it was Gwenda who I began to share my own story with because I knew the loss she was feeling, and the pain connected us on a few levels – that we were from same community, and that I also was feeling loss and wondering about where my mother was,” Whiteman says.
“She has been my greatest supporter in helping me to find the strength to share my own story, because all along I carried it silently on my own. I didn’t even realize how I had isolated myself. I had allowed the police and society and my own family’s silence about the disappearance of Delores Whiteman, to lead to my belief that, one, it was something that I was blowing out of proportion. After all, she was an Indian woman who lived on the streets and used alcohol/drugs, had a child taken away, etc. etc. or that I had no right to compare this missing woman on the same level as other missing people who were legitimately – read: not affected by the above things – missing.”
Over time, Whiteman has forged a bond with some of the families of the more than 60 women who are believed to be missing from the streets of Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside. It is feared that many of them have been murdered by Robert Pickton who is currently on trial for the murder of six women and is expected to eventually stand trial for murdering at least another 15. About half of the women who have disappeared from the Downtown Eastside are Aboriginal.
“I really connected with the stories of the families of the women from Vancouver who were also struggling with validating the lives of their loved ones,” explains Whiteman. “The only difference was that I had no dates of disappearance, no photographs, no real memories of her … I have had to really dig emotionally and spiritually to remind myself the reason why I continue to search, and the reason why I want the world to know about this.
“Over the years the reason has changed. At first, I just wanted to selfishly find her. Now, it has evolved into a much deeper need to share a story of how we have been tricked into being our own oppressors, in a way. The way we have silenced ourselves, and the way that our marginalization and oppression have convinced us to be quiet, not to rock the boat, and not to demand justice even when there is obviously something wrong,” Whiteman says.
“I’ve been a quiet member of the Vancouver Missing women’s support group online for a long time. I’ve kept up to date on what has happened there, and elsewhere.”
Through it all, confronted by indifferent cops, banging into bureaucratic walls and searching for a trail that has become colder with each passing year, Lori Whiteman has seen her own spirituality grow, connected inexorably with the knowledge that the life of Delores Whiteman must be acknowledged and honoured.
“I’ve also learned, from a cultural perspective about what happens to people when they pass onto the Spirit world, and I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to seeing that my mother has the opportunity to have songs sung for her and feasts made for her so she can go find peace among her ancestors.”
Updated: August 21, 2016