Stolen mothers

Almost 90 percent of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women were parents. With the national inquiry hearings set to begin, we talk to five daughters who were left behind.

By Kristy Woudstra

Freda Ballantyne holds a fan of feathers used in dances, a link to her Indigenous roots. Photo by Amber Bracken
‘All I know of my mom is that she was very nice; everybody liked her.’

Freda Ballantyne had barely started the search for her birth mother before it came to an abrupt end. “I’m sorry. Your mom was murdered,” an elder from her home community of Pelican Narrows, Sask., told her over the phone.

A survivor of the Sixties Scoop, Ballantyne is one of thousands of Indigenous children taken by Canadian authorities and placed into foster care between the 1960s and late ’80s.

“My auntie says we were outside playing, just like we usually did. One minute, we were there; the next minute, we weren’t,” says Ballantyne softly from her home in Edmonton.

She and her three siblings were separated, and Ballantyne was adopted from her foster home less than two years later. Being picked up by her new parents in their green Mercury is one of her first memories.

That long drive was the beginning of another tumultuous chapter in her young life.

“My adopted mom and I never really had a solid relationship. I always told her, ‘I want my mom.’ Her response was, ‘We’re your family. I am your mom.’ But I never fully accepted her in that position because it never felt right to me,” explains Ballantyne. “I think growing up in that household, I always felt out of place.”

She remembers being an angry kid who got into trouble a lot. Whenever she asked about her birth parents, Ballantyne was told they were alcoholics who didn’t want her. Despite this, she held on to one hope: “I just always thought if I’d find my mom, everything would be okay.”

Ballantyne knows only snippets of how her birth mother was killed. Alice Ballantyne was at a bush party about 14 years ago when she was hit on the head and died. Tragically, Freda’s father is also dead, killed in a car accident.

“I was very upset,” says Ballantyne of her reaction to the elder’s news, about four years ago. “I numbed myself for two years, drinking, smoking pot — a bit at first and then too much.”

Now 38 and a mom of four, Ballantyne is still putting together the puzzle of her life. Thankfully, she has made connections with several Indigenous women who have kept “my heart and head up while I was processing. . . . We have all these mothers in our lives, and we find them in our communities.”

She also realizes that a lot of the anger she directed at her adopted parents was meant for the system that tore her birth family apart. “Maybe they didn’t know how to access my Indigenous culture growing up, but they did give me good morals, a good sense of community and responsibility as a person,” says Ballantyne. “Even though I do have a lot of anxiety and I do self-harm to this day, it’s not their fault.”

Ballantyne is rediscovering her culture by learning to bead and dance and attending sweats. It’s important to her that her kids know their roots. This spring, she will go to Pelican Narrows to meet her aunties, visit Alice’s grave and receive more answers.

“All I know of my mom is that she was very nice; everybody liked her. She was very soft, very quiet and humble,” says Ballantyne. “People say she laughed a lot.”

After so many years of feeling disconnected, Ballantyne loves when people say she looks like her mom. “It’s like when you’re missing a piece of jewelry and you find it — that happiness. . . . Just knowing I didn’t fall out of the sky. I have a home community. That’s what makes me feel better.”


‘We are not the victims. We are the survivors.’

Sarah Jeanie de Vries is just 26, but she’s already nervous about her 28th birthday. “It’s strange to think that in two years, I will have outlived my mother. I’m still processing that,” she solemnly admits in a busy Starbucks in North York, Ont.

That is the age her mom, also named Sarah, was when she went missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside on April 14, 1998. Jeanie, as her family and friends call her, was just seven at the time. She and her brother were already living with their grandmother Pat in Guelph, Ont., because of Sarah’s struggles with addiction and her work in the sex trade.

De Vries vividly remembers the day Pat told her that Sarah had vanished. She knew her mother was part Mexican, so she imagined she had gone there to get her life on track.

“Sometimes I still think about that,” says de Vries. “I’m a huge fan of parallel universes and other realities. So I like to think out there in the universe there’s another reality where she just randomly moved to Mexico.”

In 2002, Sarah’s DNA was discovered on Robert Pickton’s farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C. One of Canada’s most notorious serial killers, Pickton was found guilty of six murders in 2007 after being charged with killing 27 women, including Sarah.

Jeanie was 12 when she learned of her mom’s murder. Soon after, she attempted suicide for the first time by taking an entire bottle of ibuprofen. “I didn’t want to live with that for the rest of my life,” she says.

She was also dealing with her own guilt toward her mother. “A lot of times, we had planned to see her, but then she couldn’t make it,” recalls de Vries. During their last visit, Jeanie vented her anger at these broken commitments and told her mom she wanted her to disappear and go away forever.

The burden of her pain led Jeanie to two more suicide attempts, a result, she says, of “not knowing how to cope with everything that I was feeling and everything coming out in the media. In the beginning, the media wasn’t so nice; 99.9 percent of people didn’t understand that these women were human. . . . It took a long time to get that point across.”

De Vries is doing much better now. Attending the Pickton trial offered some closure, and connecting with the other children of the missing and murdered women helped her realize she wasn’t alone. “We are not the victims,” she says. “We are the survivors.”

They also helped her understand it was okay to forgive, which she says is very different from being okay with her mother’s murder. “I didn’t forgive [Pickton]; I forgave the whole thing. . . . Because if you don’t forgive something, you’re just hanging on to all that resentment. It’s kind of like hugging a porcupine.”

Letting go of the hurt has helped de Vries move forward with her life. She’s found solace in her Indigenous roots, participating in sweat lodges and full-moon ceremonies. Just last year, through acceptance and commitment therapy, she made peace with herself for those last angry words spoken to her mother.

De Vries loves that she’s a lot like her mom. They share not only the same name but similar interests, including swimming, singing and writing — Jeanie just finished her first book. She also inherited her mother’s compassion and desire to help anyone in need. They even look remarkably alike.

“We’re kindred spirits,” says de Vries with a smile. “We’re very connected.”


‘I’m moving forward with life and still seeking justice.’

Her legs were shaking. The bright stage lights blinded her. She couldn’t see the comforting faces of her family members in the crowd at Fashion Speaks Saskatchewan in 2015. But Katie Cleveland boldly walked the runway.

This wasn’t just any fashion show, and Cleveland wasn’t just any model. A dozen Indigenous designers wanted to raise awareness about Canada’s murdered and missing Indigenous women. So Cleveland was asked to join the sashaying models.

Designed by Becki Bitternose, the stunning Pendleton jacket Cleveland wore had giant brass buttons and a warm pattern of oranges, yellows and blues. But even more arresting was the photo she carried of her mother, Melanie Geddes.

“I wanted everybody to know my mother’s oldest daughter is moving forward with life and still seeking justice,” says the 18-year-old. “My family wants to be at peace. We want some answers. It’s going on 12 years now with pretty much nothing.”

Cleveland was seven when her mother went missing on an August night in Regina in 2005. Geddes had landed a new job and decided to celebrate with her sister at a house party only a few blocks away. Geddes’ mom came over to look after the kids.

“She said she’d be back in the morning with a treat or something,” remembers Cleveland, the eldest of three. “She just told me to make sure my [siblings] were in line. And that was pretty much it. I remember waking up the next morning and my dad was home, but my mom wasn’t.”

Geddes had left the party to walk home in the early hours of the morning, but she didn’t make it. For months, Cleveland’s house was filled with family and friends bringing over food and offering support. She didn’t understand what was happening. Everyone kept telling her, “Your mom’s just not home yet.”

Her mom never did return. That December, horseback riders found human remains in a field north of the city. It was Geddes.

“It took me a little while to let that sink in,” says Cleveland, “because my mom was my favourite person.”

After the media attention fizzled and the house slowly emptied of visitors, Katie, her siblings, Tiara and Connor, and their dad, Eric Cleveland, were left to fill the giant hole of Geddes’ absence.

Eric started drinking heavily, leaving Katie to look after Tiara and Connor. She got them ready in the morning, dressing them, making their breakfast and walking them to school.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later when the three children moved in with Eric’s parents that Katie could be a kid again. Both of her grandmothers and one of her aunts filled the role of “mom.” She even called them that at various times. “But it just wasn’t that real mother kind of feeling,” she says. “It feels like something is just missing, and I know I won’t get it back.”

Cleveland now lives in British Columbia with her boyfriend and their three-year-old daughter, Dustina. She struggles with anxiety and depression, but she’s determined not to live in the past. She wants to go on with life and seize new opportunities, like the fashion show.

After everyone walked the runway, Cleveland took centre stage again — this time to share her story. As she told the audience how hard it was to lose her mother and of her need for answers, she broke down in tears.

“I haven’t given up hope,” says Cleveland. “I believe one day the person who murdered my mom will finally come forward and take responsibility for their actions and let the family they’ve been hurting feel relief for once.”


Becky Michelin holds a family photo showing her mother, Deidre (back left). Photo by Becky Michelin
‘She was the best mom. She’s not just what happened to her.’

On Jan. 20, 1993, Becky Michelin and her older sister were startled awake by several loud bangs. At first, Becky called for her mom. No response. So the girls went looking for her, leaving their two younger brothers in bed.

They found Deidre Michelin lying on the ground. Blood was everywhere, but the sisters, ages three and five, still tried to get her up. Unsuccessful, they searched for their dad, whom they found unresponsive in another room with more blood — and a gun.

“I remember my sister helped me get dressed, and having on odd boots,” says Becky. “We went up the road to my uncle’s house to get him. I remember my uncle thinking we were lying. He’s like, ‘No, that’s not true.’ After that, I don’t remember what happened.”

What the 27-year-old now calls “The Tragedy” was the murder-suicide of her mom and dad in their Inuit community of Rigolet, N.L. It’s the most vivid memory of her childhood, but she refuses to allow it to define her or her mother. “She was a great person. She was beautiful. She was the best mom,” says Becky of Deidre. “She’s not just what happened to her.”

Becky and her three siblings stayed with their grandmother before being split up among different families. While some of the children remained in Rigolet, Becky was sent 130 kilometres away to North West River, N.L.

“Everything I knew was taken away from me. I was sent out of my community and [away from] all of my relatives,” reflects Michelin, who now lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L. “I wasn’t with them anymore, so I felt like I was forgot about.”

Growing up, Becky had to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy alone. Loud noises scared her. She had nightmares. If she saw fake blood at Halloween, she cried. She would suddenly smell gunpowder when none was around. “It was just really bad,” she says quietly.

She was also living a new nightmare. One of her caregivers sexually abused her for years. At 15, she left that home, moving frequently until she could get her own apartment. 

The separation and abuse were harsh in comparison to the fond memories of life with her parents. Deidre loved the outdoors and would take the kids boating and fishing. She even let them have a swing set in their bedroom. Becky’s dad, Jobe Wolfrey, spoiled her. She loved listening to the country song Daddy’s Girl on the radio with him.

Friends ask Michelin how she can have any love for her father. She realizes he must have suffered from mental illness to destroy their family like he did. “I look at the whole picture,” explains Michelin. “He did do this, but he was still my father.”

Memories and forgiveness have helped Michelin find peace and move forward with her life. She regularly attends candlelight vigils to honour the murdered and missing Indigenous women of Labrador. She also strives to raise awareness about the dangers of staying in abusive relationships.

“It would be great to see more systems put in place. I look further than the women, to the men,” she says. “They obviously have mental health issues and addictions. . . . Maybe they faced trauma.”

Losing her mother forced Michelin to become more independent and strong — not just for herself but for her seven-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, too. “It has given me a voice that I feel I have to use because my mom didn’t get a chance to.”


‘I just want to know what happened. I need honesty and respect.’


“My face tells it all,” says Bridget Tolley. “It’s still feeling the same way. Disappointment. Discouraged.”

The 57-year-old is talking about a photo taken during a vigil held last October on the steps of Parliament Hill. Tolley started the annual event in 2006 to demand justice for Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women, including her mother.

In the picture, Tolley’s pained face is a stark contrast to the smiling black and white image she’s holding of her mom. The words “Gladys Tolley Killed 2001” are impossible to miss — as is Justin Trudeau, who is standing behind Bridget.

He is the first prime minister to join the vigil. But Tolley doesn’t see this as meaningful. If anything, it made her angry as she realized how hard she has worked and how little the government has done.

“I feel that nothing is happening,” she says. “I don’t feel anything is going to happen even after the inquiry.”

Tolley has been fighting for answers since her mother’s death 16 years ago. She has organized, attended and spoken at countless events. She helped start and run organizations, like Families of Sisters in Spirit, and Justice for Victims of Police Killings. And she’s maintained her popular Twitter feeds and Facebook pages.

Because she’s so prominent, Tolley is a go-to interview for journalists writing stories on missing and murdered women. It’s almost impossible to find a Canadian media outlet that hasn’t quoted her.

“When I first started, I didn’t think that looking for justice meant all this,” the Algonquin great-grandmother says.

Gladys Tolley’s death is still under a shroud of unanswered questions. The 61-year-old was struck and killed by a police car as she crossed the two-lane highway that runs through the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg reserve in Quebec.

Right from the beginning, Bridget wasn’t satisfied with the investigation. When she finally got her hands on the 100-page police report, she noticed some concerning details. She saw in the report that the officer who investigated Gladys’s death is the brother of the officer who drove the car that hit her.

With the support of several national Aboriginal organizations, Tolley asked the province for an inquiry. She was turned down in 2010.

“I just want to know what happened to my mother,” she declared to a crowd of onlookers at a vigil a year later. “I need honesty, transparency and respect.”

Tolley doesn’t think she’ll get any of that from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which will soon begin public hearings. In fact, she didn’t even register to be part of it.

She feels the inquiry isn’t talking to enough families. She’s disappointed that the police’s handling of cases doesn’t appear to be a focus. She thinks another study is pointless and that the $54-million budget could be better spent on action.

“We’ve been studied to death,” she says. “How many more studies do we need to have when we come down with the same results as all the other studies? Poverty, homelessness, education. It goes back to the reserve and the way we’re getting treated.”

After so many years of advocating, Tolley is starting to worry about the strain on her own health, but she’s determined to keep going “as long as I can walk and run and talk.”

When face to face with Trudeau, she took the opportunity to share her frustration. “I begged him to please help us,” says Tolley as she breaks down in tears. “I told him I don’t want to come back here no more. It hurts every time. Oh my God. I’m just tired.”

Kristy Woudstra is a freelance journalist in Toronto.



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