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Homicide victim remembered
Yvonne Desjarlais, killed in downtown Yellowknife, described as 'kind, fun-loving'

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Monday, January 14, 2013

Some people who knew a 63-year-old woman from Lutsel K'e found dead in a downtown alleyway in Yellowknife on Dec. 30 are describing her as a kind, generous soul.

Yvonne Eva Desjarlais was born Yvonne Abel, the daughter of the late Rose Catholique and the late Thomas Abel. She grew up in the small hamlet, with the exception of a few years when she attended residential school at St. Joseph in Fort Resolution and Breynat Hall in Fort Smith, according to Florence Catholique, her cousin.

"She was like an older sister to me and took me under her care when we went to residential school," Catholique wrote in an e-mail. "She was always there for me and cooked for me as she knew I wasn't a good cook. I will miss her deeply. My heart is heavy and broken."

Desjarlais loved being out on the land, said Catholique, and especially cooking bannock and fish over the fire.

"Yvonne was a very kind person, never angry or mean and was always there to help those in need," said Catholique. "She was one to share even when she didn't have much."

Yellowknifer Lydia Bardak has known Desjarlais for the past four or five years. She remembers her as a fun-loving woman who always had a twinkle in her eye and a kind word to say. Desjarlais called everyone "sweetie" and was an avid reader, especially of western romance novels, said Bardak.

Desjarlais had a large extended family, both in Yellowknife and Lutsel K'e, and raised, at least in part, several children and one grandchild in Lutsel K'e.

"She had a tight-knit family for sure but, you know, they all have their struggles. She's had her struggles. She had a tough life but, you know, they certainly do their best to love and support one another," said Bardak.

Yellowknife RCMP received a call at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 30, alerting them of a body found in an alley near the intersection of Franklin Avenue and 53 Street. The woman was then transported by ambulance to Stanton Territorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Desjarlais' identity was not released until police received the results of a post-mortem examination carried out in Edmonton on Jan. 2. The results of the autopsy were also what led police to announce that the death was being ruled a homicide, said RCMP Cpl. Barry Ledoux at a press conference Jan. 3.

Police have been tight-lipped about how Desjarlais died and to date have not released whether they have identified any suspects in the case.

Sgt. Eric McKenzie, team lead for the investigation into Desjarlais' death, asked for anyone who knows of Dejarlais' movements in the days leading up to her death to contact their local RCMP detachment or, if they wish to remain anonymous, contact Crime Stoppers.

"We've spoken to over 150 people to date and our members are still actively out on the street speaking to more people and gathering more information and evidence in this investigation," said McKenzie on Jan. 3. "We are asking for the public's assistance."

Desjarlais may have attempted to board a plane home to Lutsel K'e the Friday before her death but was turned away because she was intoxicated, according to a family member who asked not to be named.

Desjarlais was well-known on the streets of Yellowknife, said Bardak. For several years, she split time between Lutsel K'e, where she had a home, and the capital city, where she often lived in shelters and drank on the streets.

"Once someone falls into the cycle of drinking here, if you want to go home, it becomes very difficult because you have to go 24 hours without a drink," said Bardak, executive director of the John Howard Society. "That's a very common thing that we see for sure, just the great challenges of trying to get back home once you've had your bit of fun."

According to the unnamed source, family members expected Desjarlais to return home on Dec. 28 but later learned she was not allowed on her scheduled flight because she was intoxicated. While it is unconfirmed which airline Desjarlais planned to fly with, the source believed it was Air Tindi that turned her away.

"Because that issue is now being investigated by the RCMP, I'm not sure we can comment but I can tell you she did not check in on that flight," said Trevor Wever, vice-president of operations with Air Tindi.

Desjarlais' story has a tragic end, but is otherwise similar to countless other people in the territory whose struggle with alcoholism often leads them to the streets of Yellowknife.

"A lot of it starts as a good time and a party but if you can't shut it off before you've gone too far, then all the misery comes out and all the sadness and pain and you want more drinks so you don't have to think about all that," said Bardak, who, unlike most Yellowknifers works hard to get to know the city's street people in her role with the John Howard Society. "You know, they get lonely when they're here and they get into that not-very-healthy thinking and for a little while, you think booze is going to take it away."

The disproportionate number of aboriginal people who struggle with substance abuse in the NWT and across Canada is often tied to the residential school system, but in Bardak's opinion the roots run deeper.

"It goes back right to colonization," she said. "Even before residential school, there was a lot of harm done to native people. Probably anybody reading your paper can relate to having a drunk uncle but when all of your uncles are drunk, that's a whole other kind of thing ...When it's all of your relatives and all of your community, when it's that widespread and multi-generational, the substance abuse becomes normal; the violence becomes normal because it's so extensive. We really have to work hard to teach people again that it's not normal."

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