A Missing Indigenous Woman Was Mistaken as a White Woman

Loretta’s story: Exploring the impact of racial profiling on missing person cases

I have been researching missing and murdered indigenous women cases for several years. Currently, there is evidence of over one thousand cases of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. Also, the rate of homicide for Aboriginal women is seven times higher than that of other women¹. I have noticed that caucasian women who go missing are featured more on the news. Their stories go viral on social media. However, what happens when an indigenous woman with blonde hair and light skin goes missing? Today, I am exploring the effect that this had on her case and subsequent media coverage after her ethnicity was publicly shared.

Loretta Saunders was from GooseBay, Newfoundland. She was a 26-year-old Aboriginal-Inuk woman and university student living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Loretta had great pride in her ancestry and indigenous culture. Loretta lived a quiet life and had a steady boyfriend. By all accounts, she excelled in school and had a strong voice for her people. She was actually writing her university honors thesis on the missing and murdered native women when one day, she mysteriously disappeared.

It was not like Loretta to go missing without any communication with her family. Especially her sister Delilah, who was also her best friend. Loretta was subletting a room in her apartment to a couple that she met through an online ad. They owed her $430 in rent and she had been very patient with them.

She even tried to make arrangements with them but to no avail. This is believed to be the motive for Loretta’s murder.

Loretta was found several days later in a hockey bag on the side of a highway in Salsbury, New Brunswick. She had been strangled to death. Shortly after, her killers were apprehended and put on trial for murder.

Loretta was a light-skinned Aboriginal woman with hazel eyes. She also dyed her naturally dark hair a light shade of blonde. I am only a province away from Nova Scotia and I remember the day she went missing. Her face was everywhere! She was beautiful and she was a university student. She had recently found out she was pregnant before she went missing.

This all made for an intriguing story for the media outlets and lots of compassion on social media. This was excellent, every missing person case should receive media coverage and be talked about on social media. Regardless of ethnicity.

However, after the media began interacting with the family, it was discovered she was aboriginal. The media coverage was still ample and the court proceedings moved very quickly once they apprehended the killers. Loretta’s case was one of the few cases I have seen where an indigenous woman is involved and the media is heavily invested. Her family wondered, was this because she was initially mistaken as a white woman?²

The reaction to most of the missing and murdered indigenous people is very problematic, to say the least.

Due to outcry relating to the number of missing and murdered women, there was an inquiry held this year. It was conducted by the Government of Canada and independent from the federal government.

Families gave testimony and read stories about their departed loved ones. 1484 families and survivors testified about their experiences of violence and discrimination they have faced due to being indigenous. This quote is from the official website for the inquiry: “This inquiry was launched as a key government initiative to end the disproportionally high levels of violence faced by Indigenous women and girls.”

During the hearing for the inquiry into the missing and murdered indigenous women, Loretta’s sister testified. She said that the police initially thought Loretta was a white woman. Sadly, once they found out she was Inuk this revelation changed their interactions with the family.

“When they said she was a white woman, I would call to the investigators and they would answer to me and I would talk personally to the investigators and after, when they started calling her Inuk, I had to start swearing and everything to get answers,” said Miriam Saunders. “After that, I started talking to this go-between.”²

Once Loretta was revealed to be Inuk, the police reaction did change. However, they did capture the murderers and they were both charged. The man who strangled her was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. His partner, who watched him kill Loretta, was charged with second-degree murder and attempted to appeal her conviction. Thankfully, this appeal was denied.

As I stated at the beginning of this piece, I have been researching the cases of missing and murdered indigenous women for several years. I read about cases weekly on police reports and then google search for more information. Sometimes, there is not even a news article to be found on a particular case. Sadly, from what I’ve learned, a case of a missing or murdered native person begins as a cold case and most times ends as one.

I feel that there is a biased view of missing and murdered native people. It is assumed that they have put themselves in dangerous situations. Particularly, if they are escorts or have addiction issues. Addicts are another group of marginalized people and when you combined that narrative with a person of color, the public sympathy quotient is null. Which is so heartbreaking. My nieces, nephews, and sister-in-law are Maliseet Native people. If something happened to them, it would devastate everyone. They are our loved ones and their lives matter!

My female native family and friends posted a status on Facebook with this quote.

“I am a strong, proud Maliseet woman. I am content. I am loved by my family. I have a home. If there ever comes a time where I disappear.. where I go for groceries and don’t return. Where I go to run other errands and don’t return… please know: I did not voluntarily leave my family. I am not out partying. I did not go and commit suicide somewhere. If I ever do NOT return home.. know that someone took me against my will. Don’t make excuses as to WHY I might have not returned home, because it is a lie. Look for me. Please.

Being a native woman, there’s a target on my back. I feel it- I really do! Too many of our women, people I know personally, are disappearing.”

Can you imagine being scared for your life because of the color of your skin? That you could go missing and police may not look for you because they assume you’re living a nomadic lifestyle because you belong to a tribe?

I can’t. This is why I will always shout from the rooftops about every missing and murdered indigenous case I have read about. They all deserve our undivided attention. I am so glad that Loretta’s case got the attention it deserved.

The fact that she was mistaken as a white woman initially, and then how her family spoke out about the difference in treatment was a revelation. This discovery has opened up a new eye to racial biases in the media and in policing in Canada. Loretta would’ve been proud.

The next time you see a post looking for a missing person of color, share it. If you are a writer and you read about a case that’s not getting much attention, write about it. These acts may seem small but it gets the word out. After all, if she was your mother, daughter or friend wouldn’t you want everyone to know that she was gone? And more importantly, that people were trying to find her.

[1]: Global Staff. (May 16, 2014). Disproportionate number of women killed in Canada aboriginal: RCMP https://globalnews.ca/news/1335731/live-rcmp-news-conference-about-murdered-missing-aboriginal-women/

[2] Jorge Barrea. (October 30,2017) In Loretta Saunders murder, family says police at first thought she was white, MMIWG inquiry hears https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/inquiry-ns-saunders-1.4378891

This article was originally posted to my Medium account. 

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