What we talk about when we talk about Tamra Keepness

by Carle Steel


At the Tamra Keepness memorial barbecue on the 4th of July, members of the Regina Police Service and volunteers serve hot dogs to a long line of neighbourhood residents, community workers, relatives and well-wishers. Families spread out on blankets in the grass or perch on the blue metal picnic tables at the centre of the Core Community Park.

On the trees around the park, messages are printed by hand on neon card stock: “If someone is missing, call the police. You do not have to wait 24 or 48 hours.” “If something doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts and get out of there!” “Don’t accept rides from strangers,” this one adorned with a drawing of a man in a suit and a tie wearing a mask like The Scream at rest. “Never travel alone,” another says. “There is safety in numbers.”

The media is there, as it always is on this anniversary, the same small clump of people with cameras and digital recorders asking the same questions: Are there any leads. Can you believe another year has passed. Do you think there is hope. Is she still alive. How does it feel. On and on.

Family members and the police oblige. The line for hot dogs drifts forward.

There are kids everywhere — little bob-haired girls trailing through the crowd, neatly dressed teenagers slouching against an electrical box laughing, looking away, their collective shyness palpable. They could all be Tamra Keepness. Tamra at five, Tamra at 15. She is Schrödinger’s child: in searching for her she becomes both dead and alive in our minds. She is five. She is 15. She is lost, she is somewhere.

In the 10 years since her disappearance, she has become Regina’s child, for better or worse. She is a symbol of all that can go wrong in a family and a community, the personification of innocence amid poverty and dysfunction, born from Regina’s special blend of racism and colonization.

She is also an emblem of the ability to get past all that, something that happened instantly during the initial search and has stayed during years that followed. Sure, there were racists, but they were quickly shut down, and they keep getting shut down every time they appear.

Mostly what her disappearance evokes is empathy, ranging from incantations of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I (or my kid, or my brother’s kid or my kid’s kid, or any other permutation of rotten luck and terrible life choices) to a paternalistic longing to put things right, a psychological version of the Sixties Scoop. Amid the casual and awful speculation there remains a simple desire to care for a vulnerable child.

And boy, did we care: for years, posters hung in every public place, confectionary, liquor store and gas station. It is always the same couple of photographs: one in a mini van, one against a cheerful classroom wall. In these photos, she looks straight at the camera. She is always smiling. The posters faded away just as giant advertising screens started popping up along major streets. Then for a time she became even more omnipresent, almost Orwellian: an electronic Little Sister, looking down at us as we drove, searching for her.

We still care, beyond the annual parade of hot dogs, media scrums, and grief. Now that the case has gone cold, finding Tamra has become a kind of private quest, a personal relationship with a small, elusive deity.

Maybe we — non-aboriginal people, anyway — think that finding her will save us from ourselves, redeem us from our participation in systems that are still grossly unfair to people like her, absolve us of our part in creating an environment where indigenous women and girls are so easily taken, 1,200 at last count across Canada, with no public inquiry in sight.

Maybe she is a symbol of all that has gotten gentler in Regina over the past 10 years, a coming together of the community, sparked, in part, by the collective soul searching her disappearance forced us to undertake.

Maybe it just is what it is: an adorable missing girl, who haunts us still.