QUESNEL, B.C. — Michelle Munch is calling for changes in the systems that led to her niece, Noelle O’Soup’s, death and severed the young girl from resources—including her family and Indigenous culture—that may have helped her.
O’Soup, a Saulteau First Nations member on her mother’s side and is from The Key First Nation on her paternal side, was thirteen years old when she left a group home in Port Coquitlam.
Munch and her brother were working to remove O’Soup and her brothers from the provincial care system after their placement. Her brother, Cody, told Global News he was hoping to see the four siblings live with him in Fort St. John when O’Soup disappeared.
Munch herself lives in Quesnel with her family. She remembers O’Soup as a girl, young for her age, who was close with her oldest brother.
“She was really friendly,” Munch said. “But she was a little bit shy of us because she didn’t remember who I was,” She said, recalling a visit from several years prior.
This visit, one of the first, was also one of the last.
The Care System and Communication with Loved Ones
Arranging visits with the siblings was difficult for Munch’s family, who could not plan travel far enough in advance to schedule visits with the O’Soup siblings—a process that requires the coordination of several foster families, group homes, and social workers.
Though Munch yearned for deeper connections with her sister’s children, neither regular visits—nor simply contact—could be established.
“Until the last year, I had no contact with them unless it was through the social workers,” Munch explained. “We always wanted contact with them and we always wanted to be able to visit them.”
Contact with the siblings—and with O’Soup especially, who struggled with mental health and self-harm—could have helped them keep familiar adults in their lives. Munch wonders whether help from and connection with family could have insulated her from the influence of adults with cruel intentions.
“Was she actually a runaway? Or was she being coerced by someone—or being groomed? Were they making her feel that she had somewhere better to go?” Munch wondered aloud.
“She could have easily been persuaded. She was a very vulnerable little girl. She missed her parents. She could have easily been persuaded by the wrong person or wrong people.”
The circumstances surrounding O’Soup’s disappearance have been further investigated and seem to corroborate Munch’s concern.
The Tyee reported on Wednesday the occupant in the apartment where O’Soup was found was a man known to offer free drugs to young women and girls, with at least one charge of sexual assault about to be laid before his death.
The relationship that Munch had hoped to have with O’Soup is no longer possible. Munch is able, after these events, to call and text the oldest of the three brothers who will soon age out of care.
The Potential Impact of Indigenous Culture
Munch wanted the O’Soup siblings to connect not just with her family, but with the Indigenous communities they were born members of: the Saulteau nation in northeastern B.C. and The Key nation in eastern Saskatchewan.
“Culture is really important for healing the trauma that the kids have gone through,” Munch said.
Though some Indigenous education programs existed for the siblings while under the ministry’s care, she said, they were likely learning Coast Salish culture. “But we’re Cree,” she said. “So it’s quite different.”
Munch experienced the positive impact that connecting with culture and traditional healing can have firsthand in her own struggles with addiction. She credits a return to her own Indigenous culture with her sobriety.
“For me, culture is very helpful. It’s what brought me to sober up…traditional healing and getting back to my culture [brought me to this point].”
No possibility of life in Quesnel
When the siblings originally encountered B.C.’s Ministry of Child and Family Development, which would eventually place them in foster care, the first option was to look for family members who could take them in.
Munch was first approached, she said, with the ministry’s list of each child’s behavior and health problems.
“They did want to place them in homes with the family,” Munch explained. “But then when they called me, the first thing they did was tell me everything that was wrong with the kids.”
The realization washed over her, while speaking to the representatives from the ministry, that the infrastructure to properly care for her sister’s children did not exist in her small town in northern B.C. They would need to see doctors, she realized, and possibly specialists.
“My town, where I’m from, is really small. We don’t have the proper care for children with needs, not as much as Vancouver would.”
Had more support existed in her small, northern town the siblings may have stayed with her.
Munch’s brother, Cody, was looking for a larger home in Fort St. John that could accommodate the siblings at the time of O’Soup’s disappearance.
Failed by police investigation
While the lack of family and cultural connection and a lack of infrastructure in a town that could have been home for the siblings contributed to the situation leading up to O’Soup’s disappearance, Munch does not accept the Vancouver Police Department’s handling of the case.
She says she witnessed lapses in communication between the different departments and police services in the Metro Vancouver area that saw information slip through the cracks. O’Soup’s disappearance after being labeled a runaway, Munch says, was not investigated for eight days.
One officer involved in the investigation, who searched the apartment O’Soup would later be found in but did not discover her remains or those of another woman with her, is under investigation by the Officer of the Police Complaint Commissioner.
The VPD, according to the Tyee, visited the apartment several times before the tenant died but never uncovered the remains of the woman and the girl. They were recovered by building staff after the tenant’s death.
Munch recognizes the failures of the VPD in her niece’s case as part of a pattern.
“She is like all the other cases of the murdered, missing, Indigenous girls. It’s like they don’t care about us and they don’t care about these girls,” she said.
Though other systems fell short and did not keep O’Soup safe, it was the police department tasked with finding her that ultimately failed the young girl, according to Munch.
“[The police] need to be held responsible in caring for our girls that are missing. Because there are too many. There are so, so many,” Munch said.