THUNDER BAY – Lilly Southwind says her parents always told her to follow her gut. But when her mother disappeared in Sioux Lookout in 1991 and police requested photos to help search efforts, she complied even though she had a bad feeling.
“When the police started asking for those pictures I had this gut feeling, like feeling don’t give it to them. I wish I followed my gut,” Southwind told the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls during the public community hearing in Thunder Bay on Tuesday.
“That day when the police asked me for those pictures, I gave them because they didn’t have a current picture of her to post and share in hopes of finding her.”
Her mother, Viola Panacheese, was 42 years old when she was last seen walking down Lakeshore Avenue in Sioux Lookout in August 1991.
Panacheese had been diagnosed with cancer and had regular medical appointments scheduled.
“She needed to see her doctor,” Southwind said. “At that time I knew in the days she hadn’t returned, I knew something was wrong because I had her medication. She had a bag and all her medication was in that bag.”
Panacheese, who was from Mishkeegogamang First Nation, was reported missing to the Sioux Lookout OPP by her family. The initial police response included utilizing K-9 units and helicopters during search efforts.
“For maybe two, three weeks from the time I reported her missing, the police to me did what they could,” Southwind said.
After those first few weeks, police scaled back their resources after nothing was found and Southwind said she would receive updates from time to time.
But as two or three years passed, with contact from police becoming increasingly sporadic, Southwind still had not been given back those photos of her mother.
One day, after countless attempts to retrieve the photos, Southwind had enough and decided she would wait at the Sioux Lookout detachment until the photos were back in her possession. Police would have to drag her out of the building, she said.
After some time waiting, an OPP sergeant brought her and her husband into an office.
“We don’t have them. Her file was lost,” Southwind recalled the sergeant telling her and the explanation that the file may have gone into a burn pile. “I just sat there. I was in shock. My first thought was, when was it lost? How long has it been lost? All that time, when things could have been done or people could have been interviewed again.”
“What if I wasn’t persistent and determined to get my mom’s pictures back? Would her file still be gone today?”
Southwind said she had seen the original file about a year after her mother’s disappearance, which included a number of statements and interviews from different people. When she asked about what would happen next, Southwind was told police were rebuilding the file based on officers’ notes.
The second version of the case file isn’t in Sioux Lookout but at provincial police headquarters in Southern Ontario, she added.
“It’s in a vault in Orillia,” Southwind said. “What if somebody had something to say? They would go to the Sioux Lookout OPP detachment and say there’s something they think (the police) should know and the file isn’t even there.”
Even though 26 years have passed, Southwind wants to bring her mother home. She believes it wasn’t her choice to disappear.
“She would never ever leave her kids or her grandkids, the grandkids she did get to meet. She would never leave them,” Southwind said.