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MMIW drone team fundraising for summer searches

Organizers expect the searches to expand this summer
Dennis and Jane Aubertin, the parents of missing Malakwa resident Nicole Bell, and Marney Portugaise, aunt of missing Yankee Flats resident Ashley Simpson, hold a banner to raise awareness of murdered and missing women during a gathering at a bridge in the Yankee Flats area on Nov. 16. (Black Press file photo)

Organizers of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Drone Search Team (MMIW) team are issuing a call for help as they prepare to expand their search for four missing women in the North Okanagan over the coming months.

Jody Leon, one of the team’s lead organizers, said she and co-organizer Wendy Mohr are currently recruiting more volunteers in preparation for a “wide-scale, multi-family” search they are planning for mid-July.

Five North Okanagan-based women were reported missing between March 2016 and September 2017 — Caitlin Potts, 27; Ashley Simpson, 32; Deanna Wertz, 46; Nicole Bell, 31 and Traci Genereaux, 18. Human remains found at a Silver Creek property between Vernon and Salmon Arm in November 2017 were later confirmed to be those of Genereaux.

Leon said while that discovery was heart-breaking, it has only fueled the team to broaden their search.

“Caitlin Potts, Ashley Simpson, Deanna Wertz and Nicole Bell still remain silent, but as long the search for the four missing women continues, they still have a voice,” she said.

“As long as we keep looking, and keep their names out there and in the media, we have hope of finding them or at least finding out what happened to them so their families don’t have to stay stuck in their pain.”

The team, which she and Mohr founded last fall intends to aid and supplement the RCMP’s investigation. Two drone companies, Sky Crew Aerial Imagery from Salmon Arm and Crystal Mountain Aerial Media from Kelowna, have donated their time and the use of their drones to help with the search.

When volunteers are out, she added, they look for clothing, footprints, disturbed soil, evidence of human activity or anything that seems out of the ordinary. Any evidence or images of interest they collect are turned over to the local RCMP.

She said word has gotten out about the team and their work.

“I think people are also starting to see us as advocates — people that can help connect them with the RCMP if they are afraid to go them when they know something, or don’t know how. We’ve also helped some of the families get their daughters’ names listed on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, because they didn’t know how to do that.”

But not all the attention has been favourable.

Over the past few months, Leon said the team has been accused of being non-inclusive because the name of the team implies that its members are only concerned with indigenous women.

Leon, who is a member of Splatsin First Nation, counters this criticism by pointing out that the women the team has focused their searches on are not all Indigenous, and that a person’s ethnicity has nothing to do with whether or not the team will search for them if they are reported missing.

“This is about all women — all women,” she said.

“While the RCMP are actively searching, there is only so much manpower — there are only so many resources. We don’t confine our search. All those families are in pain and hoping to find answers…we look for all women because all women matter.”

Leon is a legal advocate, activist and has spent more than a decade working, both personally and professionally, to raise awareness of murdered and missing women.

The objective of the searches remains to find the women alive, and while Leon acknowledges that becomes less likely as more time passes, she said there is a reason to keep searching.

“We have found evidence — things that have helped the RCMP with their searches and lead to some key information, so we know we’re helping.”

Because the RCMP’s investigation is still ongoing, Leon said she could not elaborate other than to reiterate that those who participate in the searches feel they are making a meaningful difference.

Leon said that’s the sentiment that fuels her and the other volunteers, particularly on longer searches, which can be as long as 10 hours depending on how long volunteers want to stay out and how much area they want to cover.

She says the everyone is welcome to join the team and she and Mohr can provide the paperwork for criminal reference checks — a mandatory requirement to join the search party.

The non-profit group is holding a fundraiser and recruiting event at the Splatsin Centre in Enderby from noon to 6 p.m. April 28.

All funds raised will go towards the purchase of more technically advanced drones, as well as supplies needed to go out on searches; including gas, food, water, surveyors tape, markers, drone batteries, cell phone data and flashlights.

For more information, or to volunteer as a team member or to help with the fundraiser, contact the MMIW Leon at 250-306-1240 or Mohr at 250-804-9752.

Erin Christie

Morning Star Staff


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