Snow fell heavily in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 1997, as Dianne Stewart, a Syilx woman from the Penticton Indian Band, left a New Year’s Eve party on foot.
She often walked the same path back and forth, up and down the hill from her community to her residence at the Stardust Motel in the City of Penticton.
When she didn’t show up at home the next day, her friends and family began to worry.
“I was expecting her back and all her friends were calling me asking me where she was. I just assumed she was with them,” says her youngest son, Bob Frezie, who was 17 and living with his mom at the time.
“I was the one who made the missing person report,” Frezie remembers, sitting at his oldest brother Clayton Stewart’s kitchen table.
It wasn’t until May 7 of the same year that Dianne’s body was found by a community member who came across her remains while horseback riding.
“She wasn’t found too far from the party. She was found up behind the band office,” says Frezie.
Police say Stewart was last seen walking west on Westhills Drive wearing a black leather jacket, black jeans and winter boots.
“Through a forensic autopsy, it was determined that Ms. Stewart died as a result of foul play,” RCMP spokesman Const. James Grandy said in an email.
The cause of Stewart’s death has never been made public.
Dianne was missing for just over five months before her body was found. It was a time her sons call “unbearable.”
“I felt paralyzed. She was missing and I’d go to a store and run into people and they’d be like, ‘I’m sorry Clay,”’ Clayton remembers. “You always had this hope that she was still around.”
Clayton and Frezie spent those long six months together, often at their mom’s home, waiting for answers. They thought she might come home, they say, as they listened to the helicopters above searching for her.
“We were so lost, we were just looking out the windows,” says Clayton.
Her big heart and soft ways made Stewart a mother to many.
Frezie says she took in most of his friends growing up and loved them as she loved her own children. Many of his friends called her “mom,” he remembers.
Stewart’s unsolved murder remains a small, yet significant part of what the 2019 National Inquiry Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls calls “a form of genocide.”
In the MMIWG final report, Rebecca Moore, a l’nu woman from the Kjipuktuk district of Mi’kma’ki, said Canada has failed to value the lives of Indigenous women when the women go missing or are murdered.
“Being an Indigenous woman means living under a society and ‘civilization’ that benefits from your voicelessness, invisibility, disappearance, non-existence, and erasure,” writes Moore.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett promised a national action plan would be announced by June 3, 2020, the one year anniversary of the report’s release.
In May, Bennett said the plan has been delayed due to COVID-19. While Indigenous peoples make up just over 5% of the population in Canada, they make up 27% of those murdered, according to the 2019 Stats Can report.
Stewart’s family wants answers about what happened to her. They say they will not give up.
“Life is fragile, you got to be careful and look after the people you love,” says Clayton.
If you have any information about any of the missing or murdered women, please call CrimeStoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS.