Missing for 18 years: Where is Amanda Bartlett?
It took 12 years and help from Amnesty to get Cree teenager listed as missing
CBC News will continue to investigate missing and murdered indigenous women and girls by exploring the stories of these women, their families and their communities. We begin with the details of one of many unsolved cases.
Amanda Bartlett was last seen in Winnipeg in July 1996. She was 17 years old. (Project Disappear)
Janet Lowther wanted to share her sister Amanda Sophia Bartlett's story in Ottawa with other families of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls who are gathered for a national roundtable this week.
"Amanda's memory [and where she could be] torments my family for closure," she said.
"My family and I should be gathering for weddings and special occasions, but we gather to search ditches, fields and bogs."
Instead, Lowther is where she is every day of the week — at work at the University College of the North in The Pas, Man.
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Manitoba paid for 10 representatives to attend the gathering in Ottawa. Lowther wasn't chosen but was encouraged to attend on her own.
The reality is, she can't afford the accommodations and return flight from The Pas to Ottawa. She's also trying to save money so the family can do another search around Winnipeg this spring.
July 2014 marked 18 years since Bartlett's disappearance. That's one year longer than Lowther had her sister in her life.
"There is no other way to describe Amanda but as unique and creative … loved to read, she would for hours on end. She was naive and gullible for love."
18 years, no answers
It was spring 1996 when Lowther, who was 14 years old at the time, last saw her sister. That's when she moved to New Brunswick with her father.
Bartlett stayed back on Opaskwayak Cree Nation, close to The Pas, with her mother, where she had spent most of her life. Although they had no contact, Lowther figured it would only be temporary.
In July of that year, Bartlett was sent to Winnipeg by Child and Family Services. She ran away from the group home she was placed in.
According to Lowther, her uncle Joseph Halcrow — known as Smokey — was one of the last people to interact with her near Selkirk Avenue and Salter Street in Winnipeg's North End.
According to Smokey, Bartlett said she was alone in Winnipeg. He offered to let her stay with him, but she never made it to his place.
"A few weeks later my mom received a letter by mail from CFS indicating Amanda left the home," Lowther said.
According to Lowther, the letter said "being that Amanda was 17 at the time, there was nothing that CFS could do to force her back into the home."
Lowther says her mother went to talk with the social worker, who said she would get in touch with the police for the family.
Lowther has no proof whether or not CFS did get in touch with the police, but she uses the letter as an example of the insensitivity she says her family was dealing with.
Three years after Amanda went missing
Lowther was 17 years old when she moved back to The Pas in 1999 to be with her mother.
Amanda Bartlett's mother Helen, left, sister Michelle (centre), and Amanda (right) were together for the last time at Christmas in 1995. (Provided by family)
At one point, Lowther tried to go to the RCMP, but she was told she couldn't get any information because she was underage.
As an adult, the following year, she returned to the RCMP station. That's when she discovered there was no open missing person file for Bartlett.
"I was sent on a wild goose chase for nearly two years," she said.
"The Pas RCMP sent me to the Winnipeg police. The Winnipeg police sent me to Winnipeg RCMP. The Winnipeg RCMP sent me back to The Pas and so on and so forth."
Finding new hope a decade later
Twelve years after Bartlett disappeared, hope came in the form of a documentary on television.
It happened by accident. Lowther and her partner couldn't agree on what to watch on TV. They were flipping channels and came across a show called Stolen Sisters.
"At the end of the show, a number to Amnesty International appeared and I immediately phoned," she said.
'Families aren't taken seriously. They are discouraged from even making complaints.'- Craig Benjamin, Amnesty International
Craig Benjamin is the campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples at Amnesty International.
"Families aren't taken seriously. They are discouraged from even making complaints. And where a complaint is made, police do not treat this as a potential crime but as a runaway or some other explanation and don't conduct a thorough investigation," he said.
Amnesty connected Lowther with Child Protection.
"[It was] Child Protection that helped me to put my foot in the door with the RCMP. They finally took Amanda's case as a missing person," she said.
CBC News contacted Winnipeg police spokesperson Const. Jason Michalyshen, who said the police force first learned about the case in February 2008.
One of Canada's missing, no new leads
Now Bartlett is one of 199 missing persons cases, which includes men, women, and children, listed as aboriginal in Canada's Missing Persons database.
The profile lists Project Devote — a task force into missing and murdered persons in Manitoba — as the lead investigators on her case.
In July 2012, Project Devote announced they were working on 28 cases. Amanda's name wasn't on that list.
That same summer, Bartlett's family organized a search on the outskirts of Winnipeg.
Michalyshen confirmed that Bartlett's case was transferred over to Project Devote in November 2012.
There have been no new developments in the case.
National inquiry needed, says Lowther
While Lowther wants a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, she's more interested in recommendations coming from this week's roundtable that could be implemented now.
'"I want our loss of my sister to make a better future for my daughters.'- Janet Lowther
She's hoping more support will be put into prevention, but she's not holding her breath on more funding. What she wants is for families, support groups, and advocates to work together now rather than wait for government action.
"I strongly believe that starts at home. In order to make a difference for our children we need to teach … about our roots," she said. "They need to learn that at one time our people looked out for each other."
That's something she's been doing with her own children. Lowther is a mother to three girls. Her oldest daughter, Autumn, is nearing the age Amanda was when she disappeared.
"I want our loss of my sister to make a better future for my daughters," Lowther said. "Like, I want those targets off of my daughters' backs because they are native."
If you have any leads on Amanda Bartlett or any other unsolved case involving missing or murdered indigenous women, email our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.