Warning: The following story contains details some readers may find distressing.
“Shirley, you finally made it, after all these years. You finally made it home.”
Those were the words Flora Northwest said upon the arrival of the remains of her old schoolmate Shirley Ann Soosay — a moment her family and the Samson Cree Nation community had awaited for over four decades.
Northwest and others met the funeral procession in the parking lot of the Baker Funeral Chapel in Wetaskiwin on Friday, May 27.
A group of Maskwacis bikers escorted the hearse from Wetaskiwin to the Howard Buffalo Memorial Centre in Maskwacis where a wake was held later that day.
After about 43 years since she was last heard from, Soosay’s remains were laid to rest in Riverside Cemetery in Maskwacis on May 28.
Although Soosay’s body was located in 1980, near Bakersfield, Calif., it wasn’t until last spring that her remains were identified through a DNA match with her niece, Violet Soosay.
It took over a year to bring her remains home due to delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Northwest.
Violet, with the help of others including Northwest, had been searching for Shirley for many years. Violet declined to comment, preferring to let Northwest speak on behalf of the family, after a long, emotional week.
“We were determined to bring her remains back to Samson Cree because this is where she was born and raised. It was very important for us that she go to her resting place where she grew up,” said Northwest.
“It’s a final closure for us — for me, for Violet, for the family. Emotions just go up and down.”
Northwest and Shirley attended the Ermineskin residential school together, both enduring abuses, said Northwest. They were about the same age.
Tasks they were taught at residential school included cleaning and waitressing.
Northwest remembers her friend as a soft-spoken, gentle soul who was hard-working and took care in her appearance. She never complained, and when they were alone together at the residential school, they would laugh and speak in Cree.
When they were released at age 16, Shirley went to Edmonton and Northwest stayed. From there, Shirley would move to Vancouver.
“She wanted to go out into the world to work … we both wanted to because of what we had learned at the school.”
Northwest would not see her again until 1975.
“I was so happy when I met with her again but I couldn’t talk to her because at the time she had an addiction.”
Shirley was seen at a family member’s funeral in 1977, and she used to send cards and letters to her mother, but 1979 would be the last time a message arrived from Shirley.
“Her mom knew there was something wrong,” said Northwest.
Shirley’s body was found in an almond orchard near Bakersfield, Calif., in July 1980. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed.
Now that more information has been released about how Shirley died, Northwest said it’s been painful to hear.
“She didn’t deserve to die the way she did.”
Her remains had been buried in a California cemetery in 1980 under the name Kern County Jane Doe. Wilson Chouest was convicted in 2018 of killing Shirley and another unidentified woman.
Violet has worked with the county coroner’s office and the California cemetery to transport the body back to Alberta over the past year.
Shirley is survived by her son, several nieces and nephews and numerous extended family members.
At the wake, Northwest said people came to remember Shirley and honour her, but it was also about all missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, men, and boys.
“We’re here for families still searching for their loved ones,” she said. “(The police) need to do more work.”
– With files from the Canadian Press