Bernice and Wilfred Catcheway’s daughter Jennifer disappeared in 2008. They say the MMIWG inquiry’s calls for justice need to be taken seriously
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
CBC News: Bernice Catcheway walks up to a glass armoire in her living room and pulls out a tiny pair of white and pink baby shoes. The shoes belonged to her daughter Jennifer, she says. A tiny smile crosses Bernice’s face when she looks at the shoes in the palm of her hand. “I would have liked to get them bronzed … to try and keep them somehow.”
Jennifer was last heard from on June 19, 2008 — her 18th birthday.
The teen from the small southern Manitoba city of Portage la Prairie called her mom that morning to tell her she would be home that night to celebrate her birthday. But she never arrived.
RCMP later ruled her case a homicide, but her remains have never been found. “Not a day goes by where I don’t think about Jennifer,” said Bernice. “She’s in my heart.… I always, constantly think of her.” Jennifer is now among the thousands of Indigenous women and girls who were murdered or have disappeared across Canada in recent decades.
In 2019, the national inquiry called to examine that crisis released its final report, which included 231 calls for justice. Those calls are not recommendations, the report emphasized, but “legal imperatives.” However, a CBC analysis of the progress on those 231 calls found only two have been fully completed. Just over 100 are in progress, according to CBC’s analysis, but concrete action hasn’t been started on more than half.RELATED LINKS
Among the calls is one to ensure support for the families of murdered or missing Indigenous people.
Wilfred Catcheway, Jennifer’s father, says if laws to meet the calls for justice were passed, the lives of his family, and the lives of thousands of others, might be different today. “Pass them. Take them serious, ‘cause it could happen to you. Does it have to happen to you before you take us serious?”
Trauma takes its toll
Bernice and Wilfred say the last 15 years have taken a toll on their family. In the time since Jennifer disappeared, they have become grandparents and great-grandparents. But Bernice and Wilfred have missed many birthday parties and holiday gatherings over the years to continue their own search for Jennifer.
Bernice says her other children even told her that they felt she died when Jennifer disappeared in 2008. “For a time it was broken, because I neglected them, because I needed to be out there,” searching for Jennifer, Bernice said. “I apologized to them, apologized to my grandchildren.”
Watch (4:15): Family of Jennifer Catcheway reflects one decade after disappearance
Click on the following link to view the video:
The stress has led to other problems. Wilfred suffered two heart attacks and several anxiety attacks, and turned to drinking to cope with the trauma and grief. “I dealt with it the wrong way,” he said. “I turned to alcohol, which isn’t the answer.” One of their sons also battled alcohol addiction in the wake of his sister’s disappearance.Bernice has faced her own anger, thinking often about the milestones in life her daughter missed out on — graduating from school, getting a job, having a family.
“I used to get angry and hurt and cry when I seen a wedding … [or] when I see somebody having a baby,” she said. “I thought it’s so unfair.” But Bernice says over the years, she’s learned not to dwell and instead move forward with marking what would have been Jennifer’s 33rd birthday this month. “I want to celebrate Jennifer’s life.”
In the months and years that followed Jennifer’s disappearance, the Catcheways led searches, often paying for them out of their own pocket. They’ve also put a billboard with Jennifer’s face, advertising a $20,000 reward, at the entrance to Skownan First Nation, where they now live. “We’re not finished by no means, and we gotta see it done,” said Bernice.
The couple has combed forests — hundreds of kilometres of bush and rivers. They’ve also searched at three Manitoba landfills, including a 2017 search at a landfill in Dakota Tipi First Nation, near Portage la Prairie. Bernice vividly remembers sifting through the rotting garbage in those dumps for hours, in both heat and snow. “I tell you, it smells like hell if I ever smelled hell,” she said, but they pressed on with the search “out of love for our daughter.”
In 2016, they convinced RCMP to send dive teams to search a remote river channel in Duck Bay, Man., for Jennifer’s remains. But the Catcheways say most of the time, they felt they were on their own investigating their daughter’s case.
Several of the MMIWG inquiry’s calls for justice relate to how police deal with reports of missing Indigenous women and girls, including establishing standardized protocols to ensure that all cases are thoroughly investigated.
None of those 11 calls have been completed, CBC’s analysis found.
Bernice says for her family, communication with Manitoba RCMP has dwindled over the years, with updates on the case few and far between.RELATED LINKS
- A decade lost: Jennifer Catcheway’s family reflects on the teen’s 2008 disappearance
- Missing and Murdered: Jennifer Leigh Catcheway
Calls from police these days feel like a courtesy rather than an update, she said. “The other day they called wanting to know how we’re doing.… Other than that, we’re the ones who call.” When Bernice first contacted local RCMP to report Jennifer missing in June 2008, she alleges an officer told her to “give it a week” and that her daughter was probably “on a drunk.”
Wilfred blames systemic racism within police forces for the delayed response in searching for his daughter and other missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. “You’re there to serve and protect. You just don’t tell somebody, ‘Oh, she’s on a drunk.’ That’s a racist remark.” CBC has requested comment from the RCMP.
‘They talk about reconciliation’
However, the couple have been outspoken in their criticism of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. In 2017, they fought to have the chance to share their story at the inquiry, after the time slot for their testimony was cancelled. Bernice insisted that they be given a chance to speak. But looking back, she wonders if her testimony was given in vain.
Watch (2:12): Jennifer Catcheway’s family testifies on the final day of the National Inquiry
Click on the following link to view the video:
“We went in there and shared my heart with all of Canada and the world. What did I get in return other than publicity?” she asks. “Nothing. Nothing. You know, they talk about reconciliation. Where’s that?” She’s calling on police, all levels of government and Canadians to learn more and push for change.
In the meantime, the Catcheways have become advocates for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, joining marches and awareness campaigns across Canada and doing interviews as far abroad as Australia and Germany.
Bernice says she recently received a call from a mother in Swan River, Man., whose son was missing for three months. That mother asked Bernice about how to deal with what she felt was a lack of co-operation from police. “I said, ‘Get his picture plastered all over that he’s missing.… Call the media.…Document everything,’” said Bernice. “You don’t wish this upon anybody.”
While she and Wilfred have been there for others, it’s the strength they draw from each other that they say has gotten them through the toughest years in their life. “I don’t claim to be the strongest. Believe me, I have my weakest moments,” said Bernice. “My husband helps me through those times.”
Her religious faith has also given her strength, she said. She starts her day with looking at a picture of Jennifer in the hallway of her home, before she sits down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and reads from her Bible. “If it wasn’t [for that faith], I know I’d be back to alcohol and smoking.”
Wilfred, meanwhile, says it was his wife who saved him from abusing alcohol. “I’m proud of her because … she’s been with me, and also from the beginning. She still is.”
‘Putting this puzzle together’
The family has now moved from Portage la Prairie to Wilfred’s home reserve of Skownan First Nation, about 300 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. They’re working on getting settled in, and then plan to continue their search for Jennifer.
Over the years, the number of people joining that search has dwindled. The Catcheways say they understand that. “People eventually get tired and they don’t wanna do it anymore,” Bernice said. “I don’t blame them for not coming. Everybody has a life.” They plan to have a birthday celebration for Jennifer on June 19, and also hope to hold a silent auction that day to raise funds for their next search.
She says thanks to Wilfred’s investigation, the family believes they are close to finding out what happened to Jennifer. They’ve identified the next area to search but are keeping specifics close to their chests. “My husband’s putting this puzzle together,” said Bernice.
“Somebody out there knows where Jennifer is, and today we’re careful about giving out the areas where we’re going…. It’s gonna take money to get this job done, because it’s excavating a dump.” In spite of the work ahead, Bernice is hopeful that at some point in the next five, 10 or 15 years, the family will finally get their closure.
The grief she’s lived with for the past 15 years is something “I would never want … [for] anybody,” she said. “We pray for those that hurt her, because if they don’t repent there’s a real hell waiting for them,” she said. “So I choose to forgive.”
That took her years, Bernice said. “I’m at that place already. I don’t need to know what happened. I just want to bring her home,” she said. “It’s been too long already. It’s been 15 years too long.”
If you require support, you can contact Ka Ni Kanichihk’s Medicine Bear Counselling, Support and Elder Services at 204-594-6500, ext. 102 or 104, (within Winnipeg) or 1-888-953-5264 (outside Winnipeg). Support is also available via Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Liaison unit at 1-800-442-0488 or 204-677-1648.
Executive producer: Bertram Schneider
Producer: Marjorie Dowhos and Travis Pederson
Reporting: Marjorie Dowhos
Packaging: Caitlyn Gowriluk
Editing: Joff Schmidt
Photography and videography: Warren Kay and Travis Pederson