The disappearance of a young boy renewed the search for something better than Amber Alerts for indigenous communities | Wender Mind Kids

The disappearance of a young boy renewed the search for something better than Amber Alerts for indigenous communities

HALIFAX — Late that night, Jennifer Jesty had been pacing her home waiting for the RCMP officer to call.

Forty-five minutes earlier, she had paused before hitting the send button.

“Are you absolutely sure you want me to send this to you?” she had said to the officer. “I’m about to wake up a thousand people in a community. Are you sure?”

“Yes,” he had said. “Absolutely.”

The emergency alert system that Jesty had set up for the five Cape Breton Mi’kmaq communities was not due to go live for a few days. That was scheduled for September 1, 2020, five days later.

But a young girl went missing in Eskasoni, and late that night the RCMP officer had called and asked her to put her alarm system into operation early.

And so she’d assembled the alert—the girl’s name, last known whereabouts, and other details—and hit send… and started pacing.

Then the officer called back.

“Jennifer, how did you do that? The girl is safe at home with her parents. You did in 45 minutes what we couldn’t do in 24 hours,” she recalls his words.

That was August 27th. It would have been Jesty’s mother’s birthday if she hadn’t died three years ago. Today, in that moment, Jesty shares a message from her late mother, telling her that she is proud of what her daughter has done.

“That’s when I knew we were probably doing something pretty good here,” she says.

Jesty’s phone rang recently as her alert system, designed specifically for Cape Breton’s Mi’kmaq communities, drew attention across the country as another Indigenous child went missing.

The disappearance of five-year-old Frank Young, of the Red Earth Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan in April, has again raised the issue that the country’s provincial amber alert systems for indigenous peoples often don’t work.

Although they are looking for him, the Saskatchewan RCMP said they found there was no evidence of a kidnapping — one of the mandatory criteria for issuing an amber alert — which could go to any cell phone in the province. However, RCMP has issued a SaskAlert aimed primarily at those who have downloaded the relevant app on their phones.

Young’s disappearance – and the lack of a widespread warning – has renewed calls for a national emergency alert system specifically for missing Indigenous people, a particularly relevant concept amid the national inquiry into the deaths of hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Some of these might have been prevented with an alert system run by and for tribal peoples.

Something very similar to what Jesty did Emergency Resilience Manager for the Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq already established.

Since that first warning almost two years ago, there have been 106 others; not just about missing people – although so far they’ve reconnected 35 of them with their families – but also alerts about cooking water orders, alerts about motor vehicle collisions that blocked access roads for hours, and in one case, a reassuring alert with an explanation for one large police presence in the community.

These notifications are sent via cell phone, recorded messages to a landline, or email to community members who have registered for the service.

On another occasion, a warning was issued to residents in cooperation with the RCMP that a man who had started a business in one of the communities was apparently trying to attract young indigenous women.

Eighteen months, 107 warnings and not a single complaint, says Jesty proudly. What she had instead was an ongoing series of hugs and thanks.

“It was a huge success,” she says today. “I don’t think I really expected that.

“All I was trying to do was be able to share information. I know how important communication is and I thought, ‘We really need that.’”

Provincial warning systems often don’t serve indigenous communities very well, she says. Due to their intrusive nature – everyone with a mobile phone gets a notification whether they like it or not – the criteria for sending out these notifications are strict. And when a person from an Indigenous community goes missing and time is of the essence, it can be frustrating to watch provincial officials and police wrestle with procedures as the clock ticks, she says.

In contrast, the alert system Jesty put in place has an entirely voluntary opt-in approach, and she and the five Mi’kmaq bosses there could decide on their own criteria and protocols.

Their first step was to send representatives to the elders of the five communities, who explained to them what they were trying to do: create an alert system to disseminate information relevant to the Mi’kmaq communities, distributed by and for Mi’kmaq communities.

Subscribers would indicate their preferred means of contact—cell phone messages or calls, landline, or email—and the communities for which they would like to receive alerts.

Once the elders bought in, she said, recruiting for the alert system became easier. When she sent out that first notification on August 27, more than 1,000 people had signed up. That number is now over 4,000.

Because notifications are mostly made by phone, she says, they come in on time. And the reach of these alerts is extended by community members, who commonly take the alerts they receive and post them on social media platforms.

Additionally, Jesty says, the platform they use has the ability to call landlines with recorded alerts, an important feature in congregations where some elders don’t use cell phones.

The big question is: Can the system set up in Cape Breton be expanded to a national level? Jesty doesn’t see why not.

The setup fee for the Cape Breton system was about $7,000, and maintenance—funded by Indigenous Services Canada—is $15,000 annually. That number would increase with the number of people registered on the platform, but currently, Cape Breton’s emergency alert system costs less than four dollars per registered person per year.

The platform she uses can also manage far more thousands of people than she currently has registered. Everbridge, the platform manufacturer, already offers public warning systems for more than 20 countries, including Sweden, Norway, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia.

But strong infrastructure is only part of the package in building a national alert system for missing Tribal peoples, says Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, chair of the National Family and Survivors Circle, a group of Indigenous women working to help missing and murdered Indigenous people Women and Girls (MMIWG) in Canada.

“I know many families where loved ones have been missing for many, many years and if such a system existed … would their loved ones have been found? Given that as soon as they were reported missing, there would have been an immediate response and an automatic national alert would have been triggered?” she asks.

Imagining this system, she says, she sees a central core with contact with indigenous communities – similar to Jesty’s system. However, setting up such a system at national level requires a multi-pronged approach.

Regardless of the infrastructure underlying an emergency alert system, the entire system requires a training component. an outreach to members of the Indigenous community about how the system will work to encourage buy-in, as Jesty did with the Cape Breton elders. They must also teach community leaders how to manage and update the local portions of these systems.

And embedded in that system, Anderson-Pyrz says, there should be direct links to resources: trauma resources for families of Indigenous peoples who have disappeared, for example, and direct links to law enforcement agencies to report information.

All of this is useless, she says, without a stable, sustainable federal funding source that survives the whims of changing governments.

In Edmonton, Dan Martel couldn’t agree more.

“I’m Aboriginal. I have worked in Aboriginal communities all my life. And what I’ve seen is that every time we see something good, you go back a few years later and you’re like, “Well, what happened to this program?” “Oh, the government stopped funding it.” ‘What happened to this nice program?’ “The government stops funding it.” ”

That was part of the impetus for the creation of Aboriginal Alert, a website that spreads information about missing Indigenous people across the country. Martel and his wife and a mostly volunteer crew have been running the site for six years.

Martel’s website lists more than a hundred missing tribal peoples from coast to coast, along with in many cases photos, descriptions and police case numbers and contacts.

His website already has some of the parts that Anderson-Pyrz visualizes—the direct links to trauma resources, the direct contacts to law enforcement. And there is a central core that maintains and updates the site and removes profiles once the missing person is found.

He is in the process of recruiting more of what he calls community champions – volunteers from indigenous communities who would be quick to the scene if anyone went missing within a 100km radius. These volunteers would be tasked with spreading the word – and posters – in their communities in hopes of finding missing people quickly.

But his side is passive; you have to go there; it doesn’t come to you For that reason – across the country in Edmonton – he’s keen to network with Jesty in Cape Breton to combine the pieces they all have into something that could work on a national scale.

Jesty, for her part, would take the opportunity to show other people what she’s been up to.

In my perfect world, I would love that,” she says. “I personally would like to go to every indigenous community across the country and set this up for them.”

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