If He's Here, Let Me Find Him
Perry Sebastian, Jr. was last seen just after Christmas 2011. His family is one of the many along BC’s Highway of Tears seeking answers.
Kim Sebastian was chest-deep in a swamp. She stepped slowly through the murky water, feet sinking into the muck, feeling her way over the debris underfoot. Willow boughs intertwined to form a near-impenetrable curtain; leeches latched onto her skin. She turned over lily pads and clumps of soil. She pulled up what felt like sticks jabbing into her legs to see if they were bones. She was a little scared, sometimes, when she was out there searching. She knew that if she found what she was looking for, it would change her life. But she had to do this for him. It’s what he would have done for her.
A couple years earlier, Kim was hanging out with a friend who happened upon a Facebook post about a young man who’d gone missing. She showed Kim her phone and said, “Isn’t this your cousin?” Perry Sebastian, Jr., P.J. to his friends and family, has now been gone almost six years. Missing posters plastered on billboards, rest-stop dumpsters and vehicle windows across British Columbia relay the basics: age (twenty-eight when he disappeared), height (six-foot-two), weight (180 pounds), hair and eye colour (dark brown). Last known location: a small reserve a long drive and a ferry ride from the nearest town, on Boxing Day, 2011. Since then there have been rumours—so many rumours—but no answers.
The village of Burns Lake, population 2,800, straddles Highway 16, the main thoroughfare through northwest British Columbia. With a couple decent grocery stores, a hospital, a police station, a couple gas bars and banks and restaurants, it functions as a service centre for the small, rural communities dotting the immense surrounding landscape. To get from Burns Lake to where P.J. was last seen, it’s a twenty-four-kilometre drive out Highway 35 to François Lake, followed by a twenty-minute ferry ride across. A sign welcomes those exiting the MV Francois Forester to the Southside; from there, it’s another fourteen kilometres along Keefes Landing Road past rolling farmland and dark green forest to a turnoff onto a gravel road. The washboarded surface dips down past the swamp Kim has searched over and over. A narrower dirt road, lined with barbed-wire fences behind which graze cattle and horses, snakes down a hill and fades away as it reaches a community of fewer than a dozen homes perched upon the lake’s shoreline. This is Nee Tahi Buhn.
In the months, and then years, after P.J. disappeared, Kim drove out to Nee Tahi Buhn whenever she could. She’s made the trip dozens, if not hundreds, of times now, knocking on the doors of every house on the reserve and along the way. She’s driven the back roads that run like tiny, far-flung capillaries through an otherwise vast wilderness; she’s combed gravel pits, farm fields, barns and outbuildings, abandoned vehicles.
A clue from a psychic led her to the swamp, which she waded through, again and again, looking—feeling—for P.J. (Her mom bought her hip waders after hearing about the leeches.) She found bones she thought, after holding them up against her chest to measure, might be part of a human ribcage, and waited for the police to arrive from all the way across the lake. The bones turned out to be a deer’s. At parties, she listened in on conversations as alcohol loosened tongues, hoping to hear something about her cousin. Later, she bought an underwater camera with a cord that runs to a display screen and rustled up a friend with a boat to take her out on the lake, trawling slowly back and forth, scouring the depths. Time and again, she walked out there until she couldn’t walk anymore, and then she dropped to her knees and prayed, even though praying isn’t something she usually does, for help. “Come on, if he’s here, let me find him.”
P.J.’s face is one of many on missing posters along the road widely known as the Highway of Tears. The 724-kilometre stretch of Highway 16 between Prince George, near the middle of the province, and Prince Rupert, out on the coast, is infamous for the women and girls who have been murdered or gone missing along it. Since 1989, more than a dozen women and girls, mostly Indigenous, have disappeared or been killed by perpetrators unknown; some estimates dating further back put the number at forty or more, a small part of a devastating tally of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada. Year after year, their families have walked with placards, and organized vigils and memorials, to draw attention to the tragedy unfolding along the highway. Increasingly, they have been joined by other families, like P.J.’s, who have lost fathers, sons and brothers to violence. Since 2000, at least eight Indigenous males have vanished; still more have been murdered, many in cases that remain unsolved.
It took upwards of forty years of advocacy by families before the Canadian government and wider public began to acknowledge the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and girls, and, ever-so-slowly, make moves to address it. Echoing those decades of silence, there has been little discussion about the extreme rates of violence that Indigenous males face. In many cases, families say police response is negligible, and often there is little, if any, coverage in local or national media. Few politicians are willing to haul the issue into the spotlight. “It feels like no one cares,” says Angeline Chalifoux, a Cree woman from Gift Lake, Alberta, whose brother, Cameron Laderoute, was killed in 2003 in Prince George. Over a decade later, no one has been charged for his death.
Mary Teegee, the Prince George-based executive director of Carrier Sekani Family Services and a long-time advocate for a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women, says similar root causes, such as colonialism and residential schools, leave both males and females vulnerable. “But how it manifests itself is different,” says Teegee. “Many of the young men are dying right now because of violence perpetrated by gang involvement, drug use, men-on-men [violence]. It’s a different type of violence than, say, the power issue between men over women. So the solutions are going to be different.”
Nearly 2,500 Indigenous people were murdered between 1980 and 2012, more than two-thirds of them male. Statistics Canada data suggests Indigenous males are seven times more likely than non-Indigenous males to die of homicide. They are three times more likely to be killed than Indigenous females, who already face a homicide rate six times that of non-Indigenous women. Definitive numbers on missing Indigenous males don’t exist. Statistics Canada doesn’t track the cases and the RCMP hasn’t compiled the information; a spokesperson for the national police force, which has jurisdiction over about 20 percent of Canada’s population, notes it is “not mandated nor funded to conduct statistical research on behalf of the broader Canadian law enforcement community.” (The RCMP did release statistics on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in 2014 and 2015 after years of pressure, putting the number at about twelve hundred, with the vast majority—more than a thousand—classified as homicides. National advocacy groups estimate the real number to be four thousand or more.)
Jen Mt. Pleasant, a member of the Tuscarora Nation of the Six Nations of the Grand River, began doing research on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls during her undergraduate studies. “I would come across a lot of stories where the native men would go missing, too, or they would be murdered,” says Mt. Pleasant. She spent a month digging around for research or statistics on males and, coming up dry, began to build her own database. To date, she’s listed about nine hundred cases, split down the middle between missing and murdered. “It was surprising how many, how fast I was adding names,” says Mt. Pleasant, who has since completed graduate studies on violence against Indigenous people and is writing a book on the topic. “It just got really overwhelming at times. You’re not just adding the names, you’re reading the stories and you’re looking at the pictures of the victims.”
P.J. was born in a small hospital located near the confluence of the Bulkley and Skeena rivers in Hazelton, BC, on November 20, 1983. His parents, Perry Sebastian, Sr. and Theresa Mitchell, brought him home to a log house a few kilometres away in Hagwilget Village, or Tse-kya in the language of the Wet’suwet’en, upon whose traditional territory—along with that of the Gitxsan First Nation—the Hazelton area lies. Hagwilget, a reserve of a few hundred people adjacent to the section of Hazelton known as New Town, perches above a majestic canyon that plummets eighty metres down to the Bulkley River. Overhead rise the jagged peaks of the Rocher Déboulé mountain range, its pinnacle, named for the village, soaring 1,700 metres above the community.
After Perry Sr. and Theresa split up in P.J.’s infancy, he was raised by his grandmother, Elsie Sebastian, on the reserve close to his parents and extended family. “He was a pretty loving little guy,” says his aunt, Naida Sebastian. They’ve been close his whole life. He was shy, a bit of a jokester: if something mysteriously disappeared, he would be sitting there with a huge grin on his face and you’d know he’d gone and hid it somewhere. He played softball on a local team that his uncle, Jack Sebastian, organized and coached. Jack and another aunt drove the kids from Hagwilget all over the province for competitions, working in trips to waterslides and paintballing and other activities normally out of reach for kids on a small reserve in northwestern BC. If someone was sad or cranky, P.J. would try to make them laugh. “He loved to see people happy,” says his mom. For Kim Sebastian, who visited Hagwilget in the summers as a kid, he was the cousin she would go to for help; he would never say no to anyone.
P.J. started working for his uncle Jack when he was nine or so, tall for his age, gangly and a little clumsy, during the fishing season. Twice a day, he checked the nets strung out across the Skeena River, a short drive from Hagwilget. P.J. and other boys from the village loaded the salmon in backpacks and hauled them up the steep, muddy banks to the box of Jack’s pickup truck. At the smokehouse beside Elsie’s place, the boys helped clean and smoke the fish over smouldering cottonwood. Even as a kid, P.J. was a hard worker, says Jack. “P.J. was a big part of this, he really worked hard every year,” he says. “He just got in with the wrong people.”
Like many of the communities along Highway 16, logging once fuelled a vibrant economy in the Hazelton area. But the collapse of the industry and closures of local mills in the late nineties decimated the region. According to federal census data from 2011, unemployment in Hagwilget was nearly 37 percent, more than four times the provincial average. While the census didn’t include statistics on income in Hagwilget, 2006 figures show the surrounding area was one of the poorest in BC, with a median family income of less than $17,000 and nearly half the population—including 80 percent of children—living in poverty. Housing is hard to come by on the reserve and jobs are in short supply. Discrimination and lack of experience makes the struggle to find work even tougher for young Indigenous people, and, left with few options, Jack—also a former elected chief and current band councillor—says many turn to the drug trade. “There’s a lot of young guys dealing just to survive, just to get money and food for their families,” he says.
P.J. partied a bit in his later teens, but as far as his family knew, it was nothing serious. He grew into adulthood, and, frustrated with trying to find work around Hagwilget, moved two hundred kilometres south to Burns Lake. He attended cooking courses at a local college and met a woman with whom he had two children, a boy and a girl. He was a good dad; he adored his kids and did his best to make sure they, and their mom, had everything they needed. Over the following years, he went back and forth between Burns Lake and Hagwilget, coming home to fish and collect berries, to spend time with his family. He found work when he could in camps, in a Burns Lake pub. But it was always tough to get by and, his family would later hear, somewhere along the way he began to dabble in the drug trade. Often, low-level dealers are also struggling with addiction, ending up in debt when they consume what they’re supposed to sell, says Jack. “I think that’s what happened with P.J.”
Centuries of colonialism and racism have taken an enormous toll, says Cheam First Nation Chief Ernie Crey, leaving Indigenous communities facing hurdles like early childhood trauma, mental health issues, inadequate living conditions and poor access to basic services at hugely disproportionate rates. Disappearances are “part of how the system falls down where the Indigenous community is concerned,” says Crey. “We fail those kids who become tomorrow’s victims.” Communities continue to grapple with the devastation wrought by centuries of Canadian government policy, including land appropriation, a residential school system rife with abuse, in which an estimated six thousand children died, and more than a century of attempts to exterminate Indigenous culture, language and ways of life. Systemic racism and outright abuse remain ongoing and pervasive in police forces, government agencies and society at large.
A June 2017 report by the international organization Human Rights Watch documented accounts of more than sixty Indigenous women in Saskatchewan who recounted “inappropriate and invasive body and strip searches, sexual harassment, and physical assault” at the hands of police officers, as well as neglect when they sought help for domestic violence. The findings mirrored those of a 2013 Human Rights Watch report on the Highway of Tears that documented a deeply dysfunctional relationship between law enforcement and Indigenous communities, including allegations of physical and sexual assault. In Val-d’Or, Quebec, similar allegations recently arose of police officers sexually assaulting Indigenous women. In Saskatoon, a 2003 inquiry revealed a police practice known as “starlight tours,” where officers drove Indigenous people out of the city in the middle of winter; at least three people froze to death. In Edmonton, earlier this year, a CBC investigation found Indigenous people were far more likely to be stopped by police for “street checks.”
Myriad court rulings and reports have demonstrated that the provincial and federal governments are failing Indigenous children. In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the federal government discriminates against First Nations children by underfunding and failing to ensure equitable access to public services. Over the following eighteen months, the tribunal issued three orders to compel the government to comply; by the end of June 2017, it had yet to do so. In BC, the Representative for Children and Youth revealed Indigenous girls in ministry care are four times more likely to be sexually abused than non-Indigenous girls. Across the country, reports document that funding for First Nations children’s education on reserve is lower than that provided to kids elsewhere.
It doesn’t take a PhD, Crey says, to see how Indigenous youth are made vulnerable in communities with fewer opportunities and inequitable housing, health care and education, where there are adults coping with emotional difficulties traceable back to early life traumas and time spent in institutions like residential schools. “You would have to be near-blind not to see the profound gap,” says Crey.
Crey became an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls after his sister, Dawn Crey, disappeared from Vancouver in 2000. Her DNA was later found on convicted serial killer Robert Pickton’s farm. Crey lobbied for the BC inquiry into how Pickton was able to murder vulnerable women for years with hardly a sideways glance from authorities. Later, he threw his support behind calls for a national inquiry. The previous Conservative government resisted—former Prime Minister Stephen Harper infamously said the issue “isn’t really high on our radar”—but one of the first moves by the Liberal government was a pledge to hold an inquiry examining violence against Indigenous women, girls and members of the LGBTQ2S community. The probe officially launched in September 2016 and its final report is due in late 2018, though commissioners are likely to request an extension after a series of delays, stumbles and resignations.
Crey says his role as a chief and well-known advocate has meant victims’ families often contact him, including those with boys or men who are missing or murdered. Many are frustrated with poor police communication and unresolved cases. In response, Crey supported a campaign to include men and boys in the national inquiry. The campaign was contentious, made more so by the involvement of a controversial so-called men’s rights group, the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE), which claims, among other things, that half of domestic violence victims are men. (While a 2009 Statistics Canada report finds nearly half of self-reported domestic abuse victims are men, it also notes women are three times more likely to face serious violence like being choked, beaten, sexually assaulted and threatened with deadly weapons; in 2013, women were victims in nearly 80 percent of intimate partner violence incidents reported to police.) Many argue that the inquiry must focus on the unique, gender-based violence faced by women and girls, two-spirit and transgender people. “While we are very conscientious of the fact that there are Indigenous men who are missing and murdered, there’s a difference in how women are being marginalized and how the violence toward women is usually magnified,” says Francyne Joe, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC). While all Indigenous people face violence as a result of colonialism and racism, says Joe, decades of discriminatory policy such as the Indian Act have dehumanized and disenfranchised women in particular. According to Statistics Canada, while Indigenous men and boys are more likely to be killed, women and girls face more than twice the overall violence. Compared to non-Indigenous women, they are three times more likely to be victims of violence. A 2014 analysis suggests overall high rates of victimization of Indigenous people are related to risk factors such as childhood mistreatment, homelessness, addiction and poor mental health; but when the numbers are broken down by gender, violence against Indigenous women cannot be fully explained by these risk factors, suggesting they are targets solely because of their race.
The role of Indigenous males in perpetrating violence, including against Indigenous women and girls, has garnered much attention, particularly from the Harper-era Conservative government. In 2015, the RCMP and then-Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt laid the majority of the blame for missing and murdered women at the feet of Indigenous men, claiming them to be the perpetrators in 70 percent of cases and insinuating that the majority of victims were in a relationship with their killers. A Toronto Star investigation the same year, however, suggested the figures relied upon by authorities making those assertions were less than definitive. According to the Star analysis of four hundred and twenty homicide cases, 15 percent of Indigenous female victims were killed by strangers, 13 percent by serial killers, and 16 percent by acquaintances, a loosely defined category that excludes spouses and family members, and includes anyone “known to the victim.” (RCMP would not clarify that definition when queried by the Star.) RCMP figures show Indigenous women are significantly less likely to be killed by a spouse than non-Indigenous women—the rate is 29 percent compared to 41 percent, respectively. “There’s a mistaken impression that it’s Indigenous men only propagating this violence toward women,” says Joe. “But it’s not so.”
Comments such as Valcourt’s, argues University of Saskatchewan Indigenous studies professor Robert Innes in a 2015 paper published in Aboriginal Policy Studies, “serve to deflect any culpability regarding the current state of Indigenous communities from the government onto those communities, and more specifically onto Indigenous men.” Race and gender bias in Canada “is seen in the way the media, politicians and therefore many Canadians view Indigenous men exclusively as victimizers,” writes Innes, a Plains Cree member of the Cowessess First Nation. “The fact that many are also victims is inconsequential.”
In 2007, fourteen-year-old Lucas Degerness walked out of Prince George Secondary School and disappeared. Less than two weeks earlier, thirty-two-year-old Irvin Michell, known as “Punky” to friends and family, stepped out of his Burns Lake home and never came back. Police later said his disappearance may be connected to the drug trade. The previous year, fifty-six-year-old Randy Peal left his Prince George apartment on February 4 and vanished. In 2012, three young Indigenous men went missing from the region: Barry Seymour was last seen in Prince George, where he travelled to attend his son’s birthday, in late May; Maxwell Brown, Jr. disappeared during a visit to Klemtu on the BC coast; Alvin Clayton, Jr. has been missing since falling into the Skeena River near Terrace. Three years later, fifty-seven-year-old Lester Sampson was last seen in the small community of Glen Vowell north of Hazelton. The youngest to vanish in recent years, ten-year-old Joseph Andrews, disappeared in 2002 from a busy campground near Prince George. In 1989, an entire family—parents Ronald and Doreen Jack, with sons Ryan and Russell—went missing. They called relatives to say they’d been offered jobs at a logging camp, and were never seen again.
In the years since Lucas’ disappearance, his mother, Georgina Degerness, has advocated to end violence against Indigenous people, taking part in marches and vigils, meetings with government officials and the national inquiry. She says there is a societal view that males are more able to survive, less in need of protection, that puts boys and men at risk. And there is the ongoing prevalence of racism. “We’re still disposable,” she says. “‘One dead Indian, big deal.’ That [view] hasn’t changed.”
Travis Basil was shot in the doorway of a home on Upland Street in Prince George late at night on August 11, 2016, and later died in hospital. At twenty-six, Travis was the youngest of eight siblings—and the third to die or go missing in the span of three years. He spent much of his childhood away from his home of Tachie, a Tl’azt’en Nation reserve on an idyllic rise beside Stuart Lake, about two hundred kilometres northwest of Prince George. Child welfare authorities tore the family apart, dispersing the kids throughout the region, says Peter Basil, the eldest sibling, and Travis was bounced from foster home to foster home for years. He was a good kid, his siblings recall, who worked hard and enjoyed playing with his friends. In his early twenties, Travis moved to Prince George, where he got into drugs. Travis’ siblings have heard rumours that his killing was drug-related, though he never told them he was in trouble. Charges have never been laid, and Travis’ family says police haven’t kept them apprised of the investigation and it’s been difficult to obtain information. “The way I look at it now, it seems like they’re not taking it too seriously,” says Peter Basil. Travis’ two children are now growing up in the foster care system.
Brenda Wilson has seen versions of Travis’ story play out over and over again on the streets of downtown Prince George where, until recently, she served as coordinator of the Highway of Tears Initiative that works to stop violence against Indigenous women and girls. Wilson, whose teenaged sister Ramona Wilson was murdered in 1994, says some young people arrive from surrounding communities fleeing violence and dysfunction at home or looking for better opportunities and a new life in the largest city in BC’s north. In short order, she says, many are on the streets—sick, addicted, broke and vulnerable. Both men and women face a lack of potential employment, education, housing and safety, but how these vulnerabilities play out tends to diverge based on gender. Young men often get involved in the drug trade, gangs and violence, while young women are often lured into addiction and then put to work in the sex trade to support their habits.
The Highway of Tears program is geared towards supporting families of women and girls lost along the road and preventing violence against women, but most families Wilson worked with, like Peter Basil’s, have lost male family members, too. “They would all bring forward at least one, if not more, of the men, boys, that were missing or murdered in each of their communities,” says Wilson. She stresses that research needs to be done to figure out how many men and boys are missing, and how many have been murdered—no official or unofficial estimates currently exist—in order to seek answers and solutions.
NWAC president Francyne Joe says a similar process to the present national inquiry, or a “part two,” might be a viable means to gain a better understanding of, and begin to address, violence against Indigenous men. Several advocates say, even within the present dearth of information and analyses, providing the basics is a good place to start. If under-resourced Indigenous communities had access to the basic services—things like education, clean water, decent housing—that most of the Canadian population takes for granted, Crey says “that would make a major difference.”
Naida Sebastian keeps a five-subject notebook inside a binder with a photo of P.J. on the cover. In the notebook, there is a section dedicated to fundraising efforts, noting events the family organized to help cover search costs and create a reward. The next section comprises a diary of the search. The first page counts off how long he’s been gone, first in one-month intervals: “Dec. 26, 2011–Jan. 26, 2012, one month,” “Jan. 26, 2012–Feb. 26, 2012, two months.” After twenty-five months, in longer intervals: thirty-six months, forty-eight, sixty. The book notes dozens of tips, possible sightings and horrific rumours, detailing the enormous effort by P.J.’s family and friends to pursue every lead and story.
P.J.’s whereabouts in the days leading up to December 26, 2011, can be pieced together with some certainty. He was in Hagwilget visiting his family until a few days before Christmas. On December 22, he was arrested for “public intoxication” in Smithers, a town about halfway between Hagwilget and Burns Lake. Police did not charge him, and instead brought him to the hospital for unspecified medical reasons. He was treated and released that night. He carried on, probably hitchhiking, towards Burns Lake. He texted Naida, who then lived in Burns Lake, to say he was on his way to meet up with a new girlfriend; he wondered if they could spend the night before heading out to Nee Tahi Buhn in the morning. The couple arrived at Naida’s home, a large house just off the highway that winds through town, and went to bed a few minutes later. In the morning, they got up before eight and left in too much of a hurry for breakfast. According to the police file on the case, P.J. stopped in at a Burns Lake pharmacy and picked up some Gravol.
This is where the story starts to get murky. The last confirmed sighting of P.J., according to the police, was on Christmas at “a friend’s place” on the Southside. The family says that was his new girlfriend’s home in Nee Tahi Buhn. He sent Naida some texts that day, which she received during Christmas dinner. The texts didn’t make sense, but that wasn’t especially alarming in itself. He had sent his aunt gibberish messages before when he was intoxicated—he’d apologize the next day. This time, though, he didn’t. Time passed, and she sent him a few messages to check in. More time passed, and no replies came. They had remained close since his childhood, and he always kept her in the loop on what he was up to. She got worried and began to contact other family and friends, asking everyone if they had heard from him.
Naida’s home became a base of operations for the search. Family and friends came from across the province; a bus brought people from Hagwilget to help. They combed the shoulders of the highway and the back roads that lead to Nee Tahi Buhn. The RCMP assigned investigators to the case, and Search and Rescue brought in a helicopter for a few days. They phoned places he might have gone, put up posters and made T-shirts emblazoned with his photo, walked towns and villages along the highway with his picture, asking everyone who passed: “Have you seen him?” The tips and gossip and rumours went in all directions—some violent, gruesome stories that tore them apart over and over again. They heard stories about him being scared in the days before he disappeared, that he owed money—the supposed amounts vary widely—to drug dealers. It was the first time many in his family had heard about P.J. possibly being involved in that kind of business. (The police file notes P.J. suffered from addiction issues but makes no mention of involvement in the drug trade.) Some of the rumours could be disproven. Some were so outlandish as to defy possibility. Many, they just don’t know.
According to the police file, P.J. made a couple of calls to 911 from the Southside. Cell service is patchy at best out there. Corporal Madonna Saunderson, an RCMP media officer who reviewed the file but did not work on the case, says the calls were disconnected before dispatchers could answer. The file, she says, notes that P.J.’s girlfriend told police they had mistaken dogs outside the house for would-be intruders and hung up when they realized their mistake. But Naida and P.J.’s mother say they listened to the call at the police station in Burns Lake. “The cop called me up and asked me if I wanted to come and listen to a 911 call,” says Naida. “They wanted me to listen to it to see if I could catch anything on there.”
“It was my son,” says Theresa Mitchell, “but it sounded like he was drugged up or something.” Naida and Theresa say P.J. was talking about a black van and four guys who were coming to get him. He mentions someone by name. There is a female voice in the background. They say the police told them the exact location of the call couldn’t be pinpointed. While there’s no mention of this in the file, Saunderson says it’s possible the information didn’t make it into the central case system she reviewed.
According to the police file, P.J. texted his friend in Nee Tahi Buhn the morning of December 26, saying he was taking the ferry from Southside back across the lake, hitchhiking into Burns Lake and eventually heading to Smithers. Officers interviewed ferry workers but none could recall if they’d seen P.J. that morning. Police checked hospitals, bus depots, friendship centres. They collected DNA from P.J.’s parents and asked P.J.’s phone company to add some minutes to his pay-as-you-go account so that if the phone was used, it could be traced. There were several unconfirmed sightings in January. “[Investigators have] exhausted everything that they could think of,” says Saunderson. “Somebody out there knows something and sometimes it just takes one call that blows the case wide open… They’re just hoping somebody will phone and give the right piece of the puzzle.”
In July 2016, a boy, tall for his age, gangly and a little clumsy, steps down the steep, muddy bank of the Skeena River to the water’s edge. His great-uncle Jack hauls in the net from the fast-flowing water and tosses salmon up onto the rocks. The boy stuffs them into dripping old backpacks, hefts the loads onto his back, and strains back up the trail to the pickup truck. They drive back to Hagwilget, to the smokehouse beside Elsie’s house, where Perry Sebastian, Sr. now lives alone since she passed away at eighty-eight, asking to the last what became of the grandson she raised. The boy helps unload the fish onto the table where Perry is waiting to clean and hang thin strips over smouldering cottonwood.
P.J.’s son is in his early teens now, the spitting image of his father at that age. He fishes with Jack during the summer when the kids go to Hagwilget to stay with their grandfather. The years without their dad have been hard on them, especially the youngest, always a daddy’s girl. They miss him so much. One of the posters circulating on Facebook with a photo of P.J. reads: “Behind every Missing Person is a trail of broken hearts.” Everyone misses him so much.
Theresa Mitchell, P.J.’s mother, believes that he is still alive and that some day, he will come back. For years, Naida did, too. “I still hope and pray,” she says, “but as time goes on it gets harder and harder to believe.”
For a while, Perry had a recurring dream. He would wake to knocking in the middle of the night, get up, walk down the hall and look toward the sound, tap-tap-tap, coming from the sliding glass door that opens onto the backyard. There, he’d see P.J. standing on the back deck, waiting to be let in. Perry would cross the dining area, reach for the door. And just as he began to open it, his son would disappear. Eventually, the dream stopped coming. “I figure they got him,” says Perry.
Jack does, too. He wants to tackle all the problems that made P.J., and others like him, vulnerable. The lack of work, opportunity and housing for youth on the reserve. The prevalence of addiction and the trauma that fuels it. The reserve system itself, “set up for failure,” without sufficient funding for infrastructure, maintenance, social supports. He wants to kick the drug dealers off the reserve. He wants justice.
Like the rest of the family, Kim wants answers. She believes those answers, and her cousin, lie across the water on the Southside. She will keep looking. She has since moved away from Burns Lake, but she returns to Nee Tahi Buhn and the fields and forests and waters around it whenever she can. She is planning to learn how to scuba dive so that she can swim down in the lake, deeper than her underwater camera can reach, to look for him. “I just want to find him,” Kim says. If she does, it will change her life. But she has to do this for him. It’s what he would have done for her.