Shane Potts, the son of Caitlin, paints a red-handprint over his mouth to show solidarity for his missing mother, during a vigil in her honour that was hosted in Enderby on the Bawtree Bridge in Secwépemc homelands on July 13. (Photo by Aaron Hemens)

Shane Potts, the son of Caitlin, paints a red-handprint over his mouth to show solidarity for his missing mother, during a vigil in her honour that was hosted in Enderby on the Bawtree Bridge in Secwépemc homelands on July 13. (Photo by Aaron Hemens)

Vigil held in B.C. for missing Samson Cree Nation mother

7 years after her disappearance, family of Caitlin Potts reignites calls for justice

By Aaron Hemens, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, IndigiNews

CONTENT WARNING: This story includes content regarding Canada’s ongoing genocidal epidemic of MMIWG+. Please look after your spirit and read with care.

Blanketed by a veil of smoke from distant wildfires, the blood-red sun slowly sets behind a mountain peak in Secwépemc homelands that towers over the quiet city briefly known as Enderby.

Against this backdrop, a red dress to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people (MMIWG2S) hangs from a Cliff Avenue stop-sign located just before the Bawtree Bridge, swaying with the gentle breeze on a muggy July evening.

On any other night, traffic typically flows steadily down this road in Splatsin First Nation territory, which takes vehicles over the Shuswap River. But on July 13, a community roadblock brought both ends of the bridge to a standstill for roughly 15 minutes.

At the centre of this roadblock on the bridge — between the large gap left by two parked cars halting traffic — the family of Caitlin Potts was joined by community members for a vigil to honour the Samson Cree Nation mother’s life and bring renewed attention to her case.

She was only 27 years old when she was last heard from by friends and family on Feb. 22, 2016. She had been living in the Okanagan at the time she disappeared.

“We’re here to honour the life, the legacy and the quest for justice for Caitlin Potts. No more stolen sisters,” said Jody Leon, a member of the Splatsin First Nation who’s been advocating for the Potts family since Caitlin went missing.

Throughout the week, family members and supporters reignited calls for justice and for a more dedicated investigation into Caitlin’s case. After so many years, it’s unlikely she’s alive, but her body has never been found. And though police have said they suspect foul play is involved, her loved ones still don’t know what happened.

During the vigil on the bridge, people painted red handprints over their mouths to show solidarity for Caitlin. Candles surrounded pictures of her. People held up signs and hung up posters inked with messages including: “Where is Caitlin?,” “Justice for Caitlin,” and “No More Stolen Sisters.”

The Women’s Warrior Song was performed, and people repeatedly chanted: “Justice now!” and “Gone but not forgotten!”

“Caitlin was a mother, she was a sister, she was a daughter, she was a woman — she’s a warrior woman because she is gone, but she’s not forgotten,” said Leon.

“We call for justice, we call for answers now.”

Supporters of the family also handed out informational posters about Caitlin to idle cars halted by the roadblock. The posters detailed her last known whereabouts, the circumstances surrounding her disappearance, and pleaded for information about a former partner who the family believes may have knowledge about what happened to her.

“If you know something, help the family get justice. Help the family get closure. Caitlin’s life mattered,” said Leon.

Members of Caitlin’s family — her mom, uncle, brother and son — drove from their home in Pigeon Lake, Alta., that week to visit key last-known areas in Secwépemc and syilx territories, in hopes of finding answers and bringing more attention to her case.

One year after her disappearance, RCMP investigators said that they suspected that foul play was involved, and released video surveillance of Potts in syilx homelands from Feb. 21, 2016, with the footage showing her entering the Orchard Park Mall in Kelowna.

“It took them one year to put that on the internet. How do you expect to find murdered and missing people if you can’t have the information accurately displayed until a year later?” said Leon, who organized the vigil on the bridge.

Before the vigil, Caitlin’s family had done their own search that day of the area in Enderby where Caitlin had lived, and later visited the Orchard Park Mall.

“It’s a struggle. I get tired. The family’s still suffering. We don’t have answers,” said Priscilla Potts, Caitlin’s mom.

“I know you have to live with grief, you have to keep pushing. We have our children, we love each other, we have each other. That’s all we have right now, and memories — that’s all.”

Earlier in the week, on July 11, Leon organized a rally outside of the Vernon RCMP Detachment in syilx homelands, which is about a half-hour drive from Enderby. Following the rally, Priscilla met with investigators.

The case has been under investigation by the RCMP’s Southeast District Major Crime Unit (SED MCU) since 2016. However, Priscilla said that working with authorities and investigators hasn’t been helpful, noting that she doesn’t think the family will ever get the help that they need from the police.

“I don’t have a lot of hope in them. I’m just here because I love my daughter,” she said.

She recalled a moment from early on in the case, highlighting a meeting with an investigator that she said made her lose faith in the justice system.

“He’s sitting there with a smirk on his face. That was number one — how am I supposed to have the trust that I should have in these people? I don’t. It’s hard,” she said. “Give me some leeway, give me something to go on — not that. Because that really hurt.”

B.C. RCMP Media Relations told IndigiNews that an extensive search for Caitlin was undertaken based on available evidence and resources, and that her family “has been kept apprised regularly” during the investigation including being contacted more than 130 times.

But Priscilla said that updates on the case don’t come easy from authorities.

“We have to ask them. They don’t come to us. We have to push,” she said.

“We haven’t been here for an update in a few years. I’m not expecting too much, simply because nobody’s reached out to me.”

Instead, she credits the help of local Indigenous community members, specifically Leon, who Priscilla said is responsible for pushing for justice, conducting searches and keeping the case alive since 2016.

“Caitlin went missing out of my nation’s area,” said Leon.

“When I see that in my community, not very far from my home, I feel like I have to take action. I don’t want women to go missing — I don’t want my nieces to go missing, I don’t want the Caitlins in the world to go missing. I don’t want anybody’s daughter to have to go through this.”

Leon has been helping to organize rallies for Caitlin and other missing women in the area for years. She organized the rally outside of the Vernon RCMP detachment, which also honoured other women who had gone missing in the North Okanagan region.

During the rally outside of the Vernon RCMP detachment, community members lit candles, performed drum songs and displayed signs similar to those from the bridge vigil which happened two days later.

“Her family needs justice — they need answers. We need to raise awareness of this case again,” said Leon.

She said the rally was organized to put pressure on authorities to increase their resources and efforts into the investigation, which she feared was turning into a cold case.

“When the RCMP understands that Caitlin has allies — that she’s got a voice through the media, that she’s got people that are following her story, that she’s got people who are caring for her family – that will help her family get the answer out,” said Leon.

But through her work advocating for families of missing women, Leon said that her faith in the RCMP has been shaken.

“I don’t feel like the RCMP are doing their job. I don’t feel that the RCMP has been helpful to the families, because they leave our Indigenous people who are retraumatized over and over again,” she said.

“They don’t properly give them the answers.”

One update did come from meeting with police at the Vernon RCMP detachment; according to Leon, authorities informed her and Priscilla that a new investigator has been transferred to the file.

“He’s responsible for the whole major crimes unit, which tells me that his time is also divided, that he’s not a frontline investigator,” said Leon.

“I think what needs to happen with her, is she needs to have a specialized investigator that’s primarily focused on her file, particularly given the length and the amount of time.”

She said that it’s unacceptable for Caitlin to be missing this long without many answers for the family, despite the strongly-resourced RCMP.

“By raising Caitlin’s profile, we hope to assist with her case, and to continue to call for that justice, and the awareness of the murdered and missing, and just how devastating and important this issue is,” said Leon.

Although Caitlin’s family has since returned home, Leon said that she will continue to elevate the case and organize more rallies on her behalf.

“Caitlin is gone but she’s not forgotten. And I want them to know that we haven’t forgotten about her since 2016,” said Leon.

“We’re going to stand her and call for justice for the family, call for justice for Caitlin. Indigenous lives matter.”