Hope, healing and the pursuit of change

The family of Happy Charles hopes to raise awareness and inspire change about how society searches for Indigenous women

Happy Charles' children and grandchildren sing a song they wrote for her while her mother and step-father look on. Charles has been missing since April 2017. Her family departed on a walk from Prince Albert to La Ronge on May 4, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Happy Charles’ family is hitting the road again in an effort to find some healing and raise awareness about the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and their families, in Saskatchewan.

The family, led by Happy’s daughters, is in the midst of a walk from Prince Albert to La Ronge. They departed from Prince Albert Saturday morning, accompanied by a police escort and by senior members of the Prince Albert Police Service leadership team.

The walk, as it did last year, started at the PACI parking lot, steps from the last place Happy was seen alive.

Happy was last spotted on April 3, 2017, in video footage from PACI’s surveillance system. She was last seen in person at the YWCA, wearing a three-quarter length black jacket, blue jeans and a baseball cap. She had light-coloured shoes on, and a black backpack, with a purse and a white shopping bag.

The search and investigation have been ongoing since.

Saturday, prior to leaving on their walk, the family and their supporters gathered in the parking lot in a circle.

Happy’s family stood at the front of the circle — three generations —her mother Regina Poitras and stepfather Carson Poitras standing alongside her daughters and grandchildren.

The group gathered around the circle had grown since the year prior.

Off to one side stood Police Chief Jon Bergen and Deputy Chief Jason Stonechild. They had been on this journey with the family too, gathering on the PACI grounds for walks and a vigil.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, Happy’s daughters and one of her grandchildren sang a song. They had written it, and dedicated it to their mother.

Though it’s been a challenging time for the family, as they continue to look for answers into Happy’s disappearance, Happy’s daughters and parents have grown closer together.

“We’ve had to do more stuff together, more healing circles, more ceremonies to help one another out. (We’re closer) in ways we weren’t before,” Carson Poitras said.

Bergen’s noticed it too.

“You watch today how the family has built and how strong they are, I reflect on that strength. I want to do everything we can as a police service to make sure that we have searched for every possibility to find the answers,” he said.

“When you see — and the family spoke of it — Happy’s daughters, when they talk about how the family has gotten stronger, with every tragedy they found the strength to endure through it, and that really resonates with me to watch that and feel it.”

Last year’s walk was held to bring Happy’s spirit home to La Ronge.

This year’s journey has a different focus.

Happy Charles’ daughters take the lead as the second walk for healing and awareness leaves PACI on Saturday, May 4, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

“This year, it’s for the healing and awareness,” Poitras said.

“Our girls went through a lot of different stuff, so this year we’re focusing on the healing of them and others.”

Poitras said others have joined them, people, who aren’t family but can relate through their own story.

‘They’re on their own journeys, and (the walk) helped them considerably. We decided to do this again this year.”

Clad in red shirts, the colour of the REDress project, which uses the imagery of red dresses to call attention to the issue, the group gathered to begin their walk. Happy’s daughters, drums in hand, led the way, with Bergen and Stonechild falling in step behind them.

“When we join the family in the walk we feel the pain and suffering they’re still living through as we continue to search for answers together,” Bergen said.

“It’s important for us to build on our relationship to make sure that we haven’t stopped looking as they haven’t. I take that back to the police service in our search for the answer we continue to look for.”

While the walk is in part about finding those answers and continuing to heal, Poitras said the family is using this experience to call for more support for everyone who has had to search for a loved one.

“We like to make sure the province knows that people are becoming more and more aware of missing Indigenous women, and hopefully it will stop and we get some solutions,” he said.

He said he wanted to tell the public “to watch their children, keep in contact with their children, keep them safe. That’s the message we’ve been promoting throughout the province.”

He also advised that families keep DNA on file for multiple generations, not just the children.

“DNA is a big one. That’s where we’re at right now,” he said. “We don’t want to wish that on anybody, but just in case, get some DNA stored away in case you need it.”

Poitras said his family went to a meeting in Regina and met 19 other families, all who had the same story. That’s why his family is calling for a centralized resource to help anyone who has to go through the process of looking for a missing loved one.

“The big thing is we would like a missing person’s office. We’ve been talking about that for the last couple of years, where they would have an office where they can help a family out with someone who is missing, instead of going through what every Aboriginal family has,” he said.

‘We all had to start from scratch. We all had to learn what we needed, and how to get resources in line. That would be our ultimate goal.”