This article won the 2011 Atlantic Journalism Award (silver) in the Best Magazine Article category.
It’s been two years since someone murdered Tanya Jean Brooks. Why haven’t police found her killer?
Connie Brooks sits in her living room in Millbrook First Nation surrounded by newspaper clippings about her daughter, Tanya Jean Brooks. She stores them in brown envelopes and takes them out one by one. The oldest is from 1989, the most recent from May 2010.
Memories of Tanya hover in the air as heavy as the cigarette smoke. Connie can see Tanya’s old house through her kitchen window. Bright, cheery art Tanya created for her mother decorates her home—a painted wooden box, a “Welcome” plaque, signed “Tan.” They are happy images. “Just like Tanya,” Connie says. “Happy as a bumblebee.” The phone rings. Connie exhales, lets it go to voicemail.
It’s been almost two years since a teacher at St. Patrick’s-Alexandra in Halifax heard a phone ringing in the schoolyard and followed the tone to a basement window well. The call was coming from Connie. She hadn’t heard from her daughter since the previous day and was getting worried.
The teacher peered over the ledge and gasped in shock. Tanya’s body was lying at the bottom. The teacher called the police and the students were led away. Crime-scene tape surrounded the yard. Tanya’s body was removed that night. Police opened a homicide investigation but the killer—or killers—remain unknown and at large.
May 2011 marks a string of bitter anniversaries for Connie and on this spring afternoon she’s trying to find the strength to stand for her daughter again; to spark interest in a distant police force; to face down her daughter’s faceless killers.
May 8 is Mother’s Day. May 10 marks the two-year anniversary of Tanya’s death, May 11 of when she was found. May 28 would have been her 37th birthday.
“There’s a big void in there,” Connie fights back tears. “And the hardest is yet to come. Whenever they catch the murderers, we got to go to Halifax and see pictures and evidence, you know?”
Tanya was cremated and her remains are in Millbrook but the medical examiner had to keep her brain as evidence in case there is a trial. “She’s not complete,” Connie says. “She’s not resting. I don’t know what death is all about, but if I don’t have my complete daughter …” She trails off.
Connie last spoke to Tanya in Halifax on May 10, 2009—Mother’s Day. Tanya, who had five children, was in good spirits, though she had been involved in a verbal altercation with a car full of young men that afternoon. Connie told her daughter to go to her brother’s home if the trouble grew. “I kept calling her and calling her, but she kept saying she had to let me go,” Connie remembers. “I said I love you and happy Mother’s Day.”
Connie spoke to Tanya in the afternoon and police estimate she died around 9 p.m. In the days after the murder, a man living near the school told a reporter he had seen a gang of men following a woman down an alley the night Tanya died.
Sgt. Kevin Smith is the officer in charge of homicide at Halifax Regional Police. “With respect to Tanya Brooks, there has not been a whole lot of progress made,” he says.
Smith won’t say how she died or if police have a theory as to who killed her or why or even where. The police learned about the alley witness on the evening news. “It certainly sounded like he had valid information, certainly possibly relevant given the time and location, however it’s not a game breaker,” Smith says.
The police hope a witness comes forward who will testify in court. “A witness to either her being involved in an altercation with somebody, a witness to somebody saying something as to what might have happened to her—that would certainly be a game breaker,” Smith says.
Until that happens, progress seems unlikely. “At this stage, [the investigation] is not really active,” says Smith. “Solid motive, with respect to Tanya, is still up in the air. Does it have something to do with the fact that she was a prostitute? We’re open to that. Is it a random situation? Who knows?”
The last detail—rumours that Tanya Brooks worked in the sex trade—dominated media accounts of her murder. But there is no suggestion she was working the day she died or that it had anything to do with her killing.
Katharine Irngau works for Sisters in Spirit, a Native Women’s Association of Canada program that calls attention to the hundreds of murdered or missing aboriginal women across the country. By grim coincidence, SIS was in Halifax days after the Mi’kmaq woman’s murder for a long-scheduled talk about the hidden horror. The audience could look out the window of the North End library and see the school where Brooks’s body was found.
In justice statistics, a solved crime is “cleared.” The national clearance rate for murdered women is about 78 per cent; for aboriginal women, 53 per cent, Irngau says. “Historically speaking, devaluation of aboriginal women has led to a slow response to investigations,” she says. “There’s a perception that aboriginal women have no ties, no community or culture, no education. The ties that keep families together are fractured and people assume that the fracture is to blame.”
Police and media can add to that devaluation by emphasizing a history of drug use or sex work. “That victim blaming happens right away,” Irngau says. It saps public outcry for justice, which in turn weakens police efforts to solve murders.
Tanya grew up in Millbrook before running away to Toronto at 16. She later returned to Nova Scotia and raised her four boys and a girl, who today range in age from 10 to 21. When she was 30, a friend produced a needle and tempted Tanya with a better high than alcohol. “They say that if one needle, you like the feeling, then you’re hooked—if you don’t like the feeling, then no,” Connie says. “I guess she liked the feeling.”
The next few years were dominated by the search for more of the drug, likely heroin, which led to Tanya’s apparent stint in the sex trade. According to friends and family, Tanya was clean in spring 2009, planning to enroll at NSCC to take a new direction with her life.
Back in Millbrook, Connie Brooks looks at her daughter’s photo in the brittle, yellowed 1989 edition of The Record, an Ontario newspaper. It’s a feature on street kids and the reporter talks to Tanya, who looks depressed and is upset about her “big mistake”—running away.
She shows the reporter some of her artwork and says she is trying to raise $88 to get home for Christmas. “I think my family wants me home. I think my [Indian] band wants me home. I think they are afraid I’ll be going home in a wooden casket,” Tanya told the reporter. “When I go home, I will go to school for my mother. I will find a job for my mother.”
Connie Brooks looks out her window. She prays that this year, justice will be done for her daughter, so she can finally bring Tanya home.
Halifax Regional Police list 51 unsolved murders on their books, dating back to Michael Resk, who was found shot dead inside a delivery truck at the corner of Roome and Acadia streets in December 1955. In some cases, the provincial department of justice steps in to offer a $150,000 reward for information leading to a conviction. The money stands for Tanya Jean Brooks. In Halifax, it also includes Jerell Wright (died 2009), Jonathan Reader (2005), Leon Adams (2005) and Danny Dibenedetto (2005).