Billboard on Ninth Ave. looks to find answers, build awareness

Sign features Happy Charles, who was last seen in Prince Albert in April 2017

Happy Charles' daughters perform a song they wrote for her underneath a new billboard on Ninth Ave. West in Prince Albert.

“I miss her every day.”

Regina Poitras’ eyes welled with tears as she looked at the billboard bearing her daughter’s face beside large, capital letters reading “STILL MISSING … HAPPY CHARLES.”

Poitras stood at the microphone, her husband, Carson, behind her. Below the sign stood Happy’s daughters in red ribbon skirts, hand drums at the ready.

A few dozen people stood in a semi-circle around the family, including tribal chiefs, police chiefs, members of the Prince Albert Grand Council women’s commission and other supporters. They were there to walk with the family, and to see the unveiling of the billboard which calls for tips into Happy’s disappearance, while also raising awareness for the Wild Rose Campaign.

“I’m grateful to all of you for being here,” Regina said. “It’s very hard to see my daughter’s face.”

She looked at her granddaughters, standing in line.

“She’s left one great legacy. Look at those beautiful girls, beautiful singers.”

Once she spoke, the singers broke into a song they wrote for their mother, who was last seen on a security camera video outside of Prince Albert Collegiate Institute on April 3, 2017.

Happy’s family has held healing and awareness walks every year since.

They’re from La Ronge, but they make the trip each year, starting as close as possible to where their daughter, their mother, their grandmother, was last seen.

Friday afternoon’s event was no different. The family gathered at Kinsmen Park, just across the street from where Happy was last seen.

Then, they walked to the Prince Albert Grand Council’s office. In front, a blank billboard stood, awaiting its message.

Prince Albert’s most senior police officers — Chief Jon Bergen and Deputy Chief Jason Stonechild — worked with Carson to attach Happy’s face to the signposts.

“This is a historic event, with the unveiling of a billboard such as this,” Carson said.

“It’s not something we wanted, but it’s something we believe will help not only our other family but other families.”

The family’s hope for the billboard is three-fold. One, they hope they can work with another family who is looking for answers by putting their loved one up on the sign. Second, they hope they can raise some funds to open their proposed office for families of missing people.

Thirdly, they hope to get some tips pointing to where their daughter is.

The billboard project is designed to create awareness that missing persons is a social issue. It’s an Indigenous solution, creating a voice for families with missing persons.

“The voice may be silent, but once more and more families with missing persons begin to put billboards up along the highways, the government will need to acknowledge the need to find a solution to a national social issue being continuously ignored,” a press release about the project said.

Happy Charles’ daughters look at a new billboard installed in Prince Albert on Sept. 11, 2020. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

“Communities are encouraged to provide support for their surrounding local families with missing persons by ordering wild rose campaign buttons, posters, stickers, vehicle decals, masks and promoting them to the public for donations towards a public cause. Together … we may work together towards finding more action-based solutions.”

The cause has been championed by KAMADA Inc, or Kokums And Mochums Against Drugs And Alcohol. The non-political, non-profit organization says it’s dedicated to the recovery and healing of all First nations — indigenous peoples and organizations from alcohol and drugs.

They’re working with the Happy Charles family to establish a missing persons regional centre dedicated to advocating for the victims and families of missing persons. The proposed organization will act as a liaison and outreach centre that addresses gaps Happy’s family faced, in conjunction with the calls for justice from the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The intent is to be able to direct a liaison worker to provide a more immediate repose for families who need help accessing resources, support systems and searchers. It’s intended to serve clients in Prince Albert and La Ronge.

Carson and Regina Poitras, bottom right, listen as Happy Charles’ daughters perform a song in her honour on Sept. 11, 2020. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Carson said the family is grateful for all the support they’ve received.

“It’s helped us live through what we’re going through,” he said.

Despite all the pain — and despite still seeking answers — they haven’t given up.

“What a beautiful billboard and what a beautiful person Happy is,” said Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson.

“Thank you to the family for not giving up. It’s billboards like this that keep the search .. alive. We have to keep the faith and keep hoping. It’s been a really difficult time.”

Cook-Searson said the journey has taken an emotional toll, but that the family has shown strength and togetherness — seen in their advocacy, and in raising their voices in song.

FSIN vice chief Heather Bear agreed.

“As you were singing, I was thinking, they’re singing for hope, they’re singing for courage, they’re singing for healing,’ Bear said.

“I was really moved by your voices. You sing for the ones who can’t sing right now.”

 Vigils, ceremonies and billboards are important, she said.

“If that perpetrator ever comes by here, he’ll see her face. He’ll know that her people love her and are still looking,” she said.

“It weighs on the conscience of not only the perpetrator who may have hurt or taken her, but others. Let it be known that these men, these girls have families. They are loved. They are not forgotten and we will continue.”

Prince Albert Police Service deputy chief Jason Stonechild, left, and chief Jon Bergen (not pictured) help install a new billboard as Carson Poitras, right, looks on. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Bear and PAGC Women’s Commission Chair Shirley Henderson envision a future where billboards and walks aren’t necessary.

“Let there be a day … that this will be another dark part of history that my great-grandchildren will only hear about in stories but not have to live. That is our great vision,” Bear said.

“We ask ourselves — how much longer do we have to go on? Henderson added.

“These walks must come to a stop. We have to find our women. We have to put an end to this. You ask yourself. How can someone disappear without a trace? Many of our brothers and sisters have. We have to get to the bottom of this. Any way we can support you, we will be here.”

While the PAGC, FSIN and indeed family of Happy Charles look for those solutions, they’re also continuing their search for answers as to where Happy could have gone.

The family said they appreciated the presence and work of the Prince Albert Police. The service is still investigating the file.

“We will keep this case open … until we’ve found what we’re looking for,” Bergen vowed Friday. He said he was happy to be there to show support and work with the family “to continue to bring awareness and look for the answers that we all need to bring us to some closure.”

Happy Charles’ mother, Regina Poitras, speaks during a billboard unveiling in Prince Albert on Sept. 11, 2020 as Happy’s daughters look on. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Cook-Searson implored anyone with information, no matter how small, to come forward.

“If there’s anything you know, if there are any tips at all, I know the city police have been following up with any information they receive. All we need is that one tip, that credible tip,” she said.

“If somebody has any information, please share it with the city police or get in touch with Happy’s family so we can bring her home.”