Connie Walker, an investigative journalist at CBC in Toronto who covers indigenous issues, was sitting at her desk when she received an email that she’ll never forget. “The subject line was ‘Alberta Williams Murder,’ and the body was just one sentence, “She was murdered by [name redacted],” says Walker. “I still get chills thinking about it.”
Walker immediately replied, and headed to CBC’s database of unresolved cases of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) to search for information on Alberta, whom she discovered was a 24-year-old Vancouver resident whose body was found in Prince Rupert, BC in 1989. That afternoon, Walker spoke to the sender of the email, and embarked on what was to be a straight-up report on Alberta’s case.
As part of the investigation, Walker and a producer flew to British Columbia to conduct interviews with Alberta’s family and other people close to the case—and discovered that there was far more to the story than she anticipated. “Our minds were blown every day that we were there,” she says. “Instead of flying back to Toronto at the end of the week, we made an impromptu trip to Prince Rupert.”
Back home in Toronto, Walker kept reporting. The result? A heartbreaking, highly compelling eight-part podcast called Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams?, which launches on October 25. Here, we talked to Walker about who Alberta was, her family’s lingering heartbreak and what Walker hopes the podcast will achieve—above and beyond telling Alberta’s story.
Before you came across Alberta’s case, reporting on Canada’s MMIW had already been a major focus of your work. Do you think there’s more widespread interest in aboriginal issues now than there was, say, five years ago?
There’s been a huge shift in interest. I’m Cree, and I grew up on a reserve in Saskatchewan. I remember pitching my first MMIW story 10 years ago, when a girl I knew at home had gone missing, and there wasn’t a lot of interest. Now, national conversations are happening.
The profiles on the CBC database do an excellent job of humanizing Canada’s MMIW. When you first started researching Alberta’s case, what did you learn about her?
Alberta was 24 and working at a cannery in Prince Rupert for the summer. The night she went missing, August 25, was her last night out before she returned home to Vancouver, where she had a live-in boyfriend. She went to the bar to see friends; by all accounts she was in a good mood and having fun. Her sister, Claudia, was with her. After the bar closed, they were all outside, and Alberta said, ‘Claudia, Claudia, I’m going to a party.’ Alberta told Claudia where the party was, and Claudia turned her head away for a second to talk to someone. When she turned back, Alberta was gone. It’s just so heartbreaking. Claudia has replayed that last minute over and over in her mind, and has said that if she hadn’t turned her head away, maybe Alberta would still be here. [One month later, Alberta’s body was found 37 km outside of Prince Rupert; investigators said that she had been sexually assaulted and strangled.]
When did you realize that this was blowing up into a much bigger story?
When we started researching, we just thought it would be a standard piece—we’d talk to Alberta’s sister, talk to the person who sent the email, and talked to the person who was named in the email. But once we got out to British Columbia, we started hearing from other people who had new information or who were too afraid to speak out back in 1989. It wasn’t something we had expected. I’m not sure if it’s because 27 years have passed, or that we were the right people asking the right questions at the right time, or that there’s now a recognition that this is important. But there were also people who weren’t keen to talk. It was a packed bar the night that Alberta went missing, but some people still didn’t want to talk about it.
Without giving too much away, I had read that Claudia felt strongly from the start that she knew who murdered Alberta?
Claudia had her suspicions. [Read more about them here.]
But it’s fair to say the story isn’t quite so open-and-shut?
A lot of it was surprising—there are really so many different revelations and twists and turns. Alberta’s story has really compelling true crime elements, but at the heart of it is a 24-year-old girl who had her whole life ahead of her, and whose family was incredibly broken up at her murder and remain in so much agony over her death. It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of each podcast, but I always want to keep in mind who Alberta was and how much her family loved her and how much they still mourn her.
What can listeners expect from the podcast, in terms of resolution?
We’ve allowed for some flexibility for the ending. We’re still in production for a bit while the series rolls out. If there are tips that come in, we can explore them. But for me, I’ll feel good and proud of the work we’ve done if we’ve really helped people have a better understanding of Alberta’s story—which was never reported—and also if we can say we’ve helped deepen the understanding of the issue of Canada’s murdered and missing aboriginal women.
What type of outcome do you think Alberta’s family is hoping for?
There are so many families out there seeking justice, but what does that look like? Does that mean someone is arrested or just that the case is closed? I really don’t know. But for Alberta’s family, I think they have always hoped that her killer would be caught.