Ashley Simpson, Caitlin Potts, Deanna Wertz.
These three names were on the minds of many Saturday, as citizens participated in a First Nations-led, 118-kilometre walk for the three women who went missing last year.
All three women lived in the traditional territory of the Splatsin First Nation.
Ashley Simpson and Deanna Wertz were last seen on Yankee Flats Road, south of Salmon Arm, where they lived in the same vicinity. Simpson lived in a travel trailer with her boyfriend. She was last seen on April 27, 2016. The man who owns the property reported last year that she and her boyfriend had a fight about money that day and Simpson had texted her boyfriend to say she was leaving. He said she had indicated she wanted to go back to Ontario to work with her father, but didn’t have the financial means to get there. She has not been seen since.
Wertz was last seen on July 19, 2016, and it’s believed she may have gone on a walk in the nearby forest, which she enjoyed doing. Search and Rescue combed the area, but found nothing.
John Simpson, Ashley’s dad, said the RCMP Major Crimes officers told him they do not believe the disappearances of the two women on Yankee Flats Road are related.
Caitlin Potts was last seen on Feb. 21, 2016. She had been living on Mabel Lake Road near Enderby, and was captured on video at the Orchard Park Mall in Kelowna about 1:30 p.m. that day. She has not been seen since. In the days leading up to her disappearance, she is reported to have had connections to West Kelowna, Armstrong and Salmon Arm, as well as Enderby and Kelowna.
The walk was divided into three segments, the first from Yankee Flats Road to Vernon, the second from Vernon to Lake Country and the last, to Orchard Park Mall in Kelowna. About 40 people took part in the first segment, including members of the Splatsin, Okanagan, Neskonlith and Adams Lake bands.
“We wanted to find a way to bring people to the area where they were last seen,” said Jody Leon, who organized the event with Megan Louis. As she walked along Yankee Flats Road early Saturday, she explained she was inspired by the anniversary of Ashley Simpson’s disappearance and the passion she saw in Ashley’s dad John when he came to B.C. from Ontario last week to search for her.
Leon said family members of all three women have told her what a painful journey this has been.
She wants to spread accurate information about when and where the woman disappeared, as it might jog people’s minds and stir up clues, evidence or remembered sightings.
“They definitely need to be remembered and honoured,” she says, pointing to all the missing women in Canada, which grassroots organizations estimate at 4,000. “Out of all those names… If every person in Canada took one picture and decided to advocate for her, she would never be forgotten.”
Rosalind Williams hopes the crime unit investigating the missing women considers any possible correlations. She also wants to create awareness of the women, noting that then “people who are spiritual people, they add their prayers to help the families.”
Also walking in the ever-increasing heat, Chief Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith band said raising awareness of and support for missing and murdered women is long overdue.
She points out that a better solution needs to be found for issues in families and communities.
“Our women need to be respected more. Women played a foundational role in our communities as caregivers, lifegivers, and also the harmony and the balance in the families, the communities and the nations. So we need to restore that, and restore the respect for our women and also to end violence against our women and girls.”
Splatsin Chief Wayne Christian joined the walk, saying it’s “really, really important” to bring attention to the missing women.
“We’re hoping we can get people engaged and helping us to find the women,” he said.
Salmon Arm Mayor Nancy Cooper said she was pleased to offer her support, adding it could have been anyone’s relatives who went missing.
“We’ve got to figure out what’s going on here and let the governments know, both federally and provincially, that, ‘You know what? We’re concerned and we’re not giving up.’”
Allan Louis, a councillor with the Okanagan Indian Band, also emphasized awareness.
“These girls seem to be forgotten all the time, so many of them. In this day and age, it’s frightening that people disappear and we don’t know where they go,” he said, adding, “Plus I have grandchildren.”
Louis Thomas, a Neskonlith councillor, said women in his culture were very important, but have been targeted by men, especially when drinking alcohol.
“My mom (Mary Thomas) was abused by her husband – my father – when he was drinking,” he said, adding that women seemed to accept it as normal then.
“We have to learn to respect the women too.”
Patricia Purdaby said she was walking to bring awareness to the community and make an impact.
“My mom, Delores Purdaby, went on the walk, the Highway of Tears. I wanted to follow in her steps and try to make an impression. I hope it brings awareness and people start to know this does happen and it shouldn’t.”