Canada treating disappearance of Quebec woman in Burkina Faso as kidnapping

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The disappearance of a Quebec woman in Burkina Faso is being treated as a kidnapping, Canadian officials said Sunday.

Edith Blais, 34, and her Italian travel companion, Luca Tacchetto, 30, were last heard from in the western city of Bobo-Dioulasso on Dec. 15.

The office of International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau told Radio-Canada that despite not having any confirmation, they are approaching the case as they would a kidnapping. Her office declined further comment. 

Global Affairs Canada said it is treating Blais’s case as « extremely high priority. »

Blais’s family says she and Tacchetto​ were planning on driving to Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, where they intended to stay for a few days and possibly sell their car before heading to neighbouring Togo.

Jocelyne Bergeron, Blais’s mother, told Radio-Canada that there has been an immense outpouring since her family launched an online effort to locate her daughter.

« In this sadness, in this anguish, we feel supported, as we never thought we could be supported, » said Bergeron. « It’s amazing. Thank you to everyone who gets involved or who has positive thoughts for us. »

Bergeron said all the family has come together to help during this difficult time.

Jocelyne Bergeron, mother of Edith Blais, said her family and friends have come together to help in this search effort. (Radio-Canada)

Bergeron, last spoke with her daughter on Dec. 13 when she was in Mali.

She said Luca’s father spoke with them after they had arrived in Burkina Faso two days later.

Blais’s sister, Mélanie Bergeron Blais, added that the family is circulating recent photos of her online and trying to track her cellphone and iPad in collaboration with the Sûreté du Québec and RCMP.

She said she’s been satisfied with the response from Ottawa so far, including the liaison from the minister’s office. 

« They were touched by the disappearance of Edith, » she said. « I think it’s something they took to heart. »

Minister Bibeau is herself from Sherbrooke, Que., where the family lives, and as the representative for Compton—Stanstead, is the family’s MP.

Travel advisory in effect

Canada has an active travel advisory for Burkina Faso, recommending all non-essential travel be avoided due to the threat of terrorism. Canada also advises to avoid all travel in the area bordering Togo due to the risk of banditry and kidnapping.

Authorities in Burkina Faso declared a state of emergency earlier this week following terrorist attacks in the northern part of the country.

In its travel advisory, Canada notes this means an increase of security checkpoints and curfews.

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The weight of silence: Ryan Shtuka’s disappearance continues to haunt B.C. ski resort

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As Sun Peaks, B.C., prepares for another busy ski season, the mystery of Ryan Shtuka’s disappearance continues to haunt the Interior resort town.

Shtuka, 20, vanished one cold night in February after leaving a house party. Despite extensive searching in the months since, no clues have emerged as to his whereabouts.

While the investigation into Shtuka’s disappearance remains open, the lack of clues and a tight-lipped RCMP has sparked wild speculation and instilled lingering fears in the community of Sun Peaks, which lies around 60 kilometres northeast of Kamloops. 

Friends and family remember Shtuka as a friendly, likeable, easygoing person.

« He just seemed like a really good guy, really genuine and confident. … Everyone liked him up there. He never made any enemies, » said Madelyn Piggin, who worked with Shtuka at the Sun Peaks tube park.

« It’s just such an unreal thing to happen that I still think he’ll show up one day and he’ll be fine. »

Local newspaper publisher Brandi Schier said Shtuka’s disappearance has affected everyone in the area. 

« When it comes down to it, we are a small town, » Schier said. 

« I think everybody did get pretty emotionally involved, especially if you were a younger person and you knew Ryan. The fact that we haven’t been able to return Ryan home to his family has been incredibly painful for everybody up here. »

Signs and posters regarding missing person Ryan Shtuka are posted all over B.C. (Shelley Joyce/CBC)

Extensive search

Shtuka, a seasonal worker from Beaumont, Alta., left a house party at approximately 2 a.m. on Feb. 17, according to police. He hasn’t been seen since. 

In the days and weeks following his disappearance, hundreds of volunteers from Alberta and British Columbia, along with local search and rescue teams and the RCMP, searched the village and surrounding forests, trails and mountains, looking for something that might lead to more information about what happened that night.

The initial concern from friends and first responders was that Shtuka had fallen into a gully, which was covered by heavy snow later that weekend. But even as the snow melted into spring, no sign of him was found.

« When somebody goes missing, until there is a definite conclusion as to where the body is, then it’s an open investigation, » Kamloops RCMP Cpl. Jodi Shelkie said.

‘Vacuum of information’

Schier called the silence from the RCMP a « vacuum of information. »

« Misinformation has just been all over place, » she said.  « Tons of rumours. Spiritual mediums are getting involved. »

Jean Strong, editor of the local newspaper Sun Peaks Independent News, said she’s read several theories online about what happened to Shtuka.

« Abduction to sex trafficking, to being involved in [the] drug trade, to aliens, to animal attack, » she said. « Any other wild theory you can think of has come up online, I think. »

Shtuka, from Beaumont, Alta., was working as a lift operator at the Sun Peaks resort. (Submitted)

Beyond rumours and speculation, Shtuka’s disappearance has instilled an element of fear into the community, particularly among young seasonal workers, Strong says.

She said they can relate to Shtuka and don’t know whether or not his disappearance was an isolated occurrence. 

« I think in some ways that makes people worried, or anxious or afraid, » said Strong, who added that some people are too uncomfortable to walk home alone at night in the area where Shtuka was last seen.

Violent death?

Jim Reid, who was staying with friends near the house where Shtuka lived on the night the 20-year-old went missing, told CBC he heard an unusual interaction outside in the middle of that night.

« I heard a guy’s voice and it was mad, » Reid said.

He said the person he heard was yelling, « get in the car, get in the f–king car. »

Reid says he reported what he heard to police, but, after they called him back several times, he hasn’t heard anything since.

Those who believe Shutka’s life came to a violent end include retired RCMP investigator Bryan Smith, who travelled from Alberta to help with the search at the request of a Shtuka family friend.

Smith, a Mountie for 25 years who had investigated several missing persons cases, has also worked as a ski patroller and horseback guide and has experience with many backcountry searches.

His initial conclusion was that Shtuka had wandered into the deep snow and got lost in the rugged terrain around Sun Peaks. 

However, an interview with one of Shtuka’s friends changed his mind.

« The friend seemed to be very nervous and very afraid for himself, which was unusual to me, » said Smith, who would not reveal the friend’s name.

« My gut told me that this was most likely a homicide, not just a missing person. »

Smith said he shared his findings with the RCMP.

But after extensive interviews with everyone involved with Shtuka, police say they have no reason to believe foul play was involved.

« At this time there is no evidence that anything criminal happened, » Shelkie said, adding that RCMP do not believe people in the Sun Peaks area should be concerned about their safety. 

Ryan Shtuka’s mother, Heather Shtuka, helped search the trails around Sun Peaks Resort for months, hoping to find any sign of her missing son. (Shelley Joyce/CBC)

‘We want to believe that we’ll find him’

Above all, the silence has weighed heaviest on Shtuka’s family. 

His parents, Heather and Scott, rallied volunteers and spent four months searching Sun Peaks and the area around the town.

Heather Shtuka finds it improbable that her son met a violent end.

« He’s not confrontational, he’s not an instigator, he’s not one of those people that would go out of his way to start something, » she said

« He was great, funny, a loyal guy, sarcastic, and great with his friends. »

But they’re still no closer to finding an answer to what happened.

« We don’t know why Ryan went missing, we don’t know how he went missing, we don’t know where he went missing, » Heather Shtuka said.

« We want to believe that we’ll find him, that a parent’s love will be so strong. »

Daybreak’s Shelley Joyce set out on a mission to find out what happened to missing 20-year-old Ryan Shtuka, who was last seen leaving a house party at Sun Peaks. She spoke with people who have never talked to media before about what they believe happened that cold night in February, 2018. 26:26

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Trudeau has ‘real concerns’ about disappearance of Saudi journalist Khashoggi

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today he has real concerns about allegations linked to the disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a man who has written extensively about human rights abuses by the oil-rich kingdom’s ruling royal family.

Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey more than two weeks ago, prompting fears that he may have been killed inside the diplomatic post. Turkish officials say they believe the columnist and former news executive was murdered there, dismembered and later disposed of, according to a Reuters report.

« We have real concern about the reports coming out on the situation of this journalist. We’re very much working with our allies in the international community to try and bring forward a concerted, or at least an aligned, response as we learn more about this situation, » Trudeau said during a ‘fireside chat’ at the Fortune Global Forum in Toronto.

« Obviously, this is something that has highlighted real concerns for an awful lot of people and let’s just say I’m glad we’re having these conversations in the open. »

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she told her Saudi counterpart Monday that she wants to see a « thorough and transparent » investigation into Khashoggi’s fate.

« I emphasized that those found responsible must be held to account, » she said in the House of Commons. The two spoke by phone earlier Monday, she said.

Freeland, who had been criticized by the NDP for not issuing her own statement on the matter (she instead retweeted one by the French, German and U.K. foreign ministers), read a statement to reporters in the foyer of the Commons after question period.

« I’d like to reaffirm our commitment to defending freedom of expression and protection of the free press, » she said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke about Jamal Kashoggi after Monday’s QP 1:38

« Canada remains very troubled by the disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and calls for a thorough, credible and transparent investigation into the serious allegations about Mr. Kashoggi’s disappearance. »

Khashoggi’s alleged murder at the hands of Saudi operatives — something the kingdom has vehemently denied — is just the latest in a series of events raising the temperature of the kingdom’s diplomatic relationship with many Western nations.

In August, Freeland sent a tweet condemning Saudi Arabia’s decision to jail prominent women’s rights activists Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah.

Badawi is the sister of Raif Badawi, a Saudi dissident blogger who has been imprisoned by the Saudi government since 2012 on charges of apostasy and « insulting Islam through electronic channels. » Raif Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children have been living in Quebec since 2015 after fleeing the desert kingdom.

Freeland said she was alarmed by Badawi’s imprisonment and called for the release of « peaceful » human rights activists — a statement that prompted the Middle Eastern kingdom’s governing monarchy to virtually sever all ties with Canada.

In this Feb. 1, 2015, file photo, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a press conference in Manama, Bahrain. (Hasan Jamali/Associated Press)

Saudi’s Foreign Affairs Minister Adel al-Jubeir said a restoration of relations would not be achieved until Canada apologizes for interfering in the country’s internal matters.

« A mistake has been made and a mistake should be corrected, » al-Jubeir said in August. « Canada needs to fix its big mistake. »

Trudeau has said Canada will do no such thing.

Speaking in Toronto Monday, Trudeau said Canada will not be silenced by human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia and its leader, Mohammad Bin Salman — the young crown prince who has sought to modernize his deeply religious country but has bristled at criticism from abroad.

« Canada will always be very firm, and we’ll try to be polite, because it’s not just a cliché, about standing up for human rights all around the world. Canadians expect it of our government. The world expects it of Canada, » Trudeau said.

« We don’t take kindly to having people try to punish us for what we believe in. »

Freeland was asked if, in light of unanswered questions about Khashoggi, Canada should consider cancelling its contract to supply the kingdom with Canadian build LAVs (light armoured vehicles). She indicated the contract would not be revisited.

« When it comes to existing contracts, our government believes strongly that Canada’s word has to matter and it’s important for Canada’s word to last longer than one particular government, » Freeland said.

Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dennis Horak joined Power & Politics Monday to discuss the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the current state of Canada-Saudi relations. 9:32

Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dennis Horak told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics today that even if Saudi Arabia can be linked with the killing, the Trudeau government should continue to engage with the kingdom.

« Minister Freeland talked with [Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Adel bin Ahmed] Al-Jubeir today as I understand it and I think that’s exactly the right approach, » he said.

« You’re not going to be able to isolate Saudi Arabia. They’re just too important a country, and the reason they are too important a country is world oil markets. We can’t isolate them in the way we think we can. »

Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dennis Horak joined Power & Politics Monday to discuss the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the current state of Canada-Saudi relations. 6:30

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Judge issues unusual pub ban in Jennifer Hillier-Penney disappearance case

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A Supreme Court judge has granted an unusual publication ban in the case of Jennifer Hillier-Penney, of Newfoundland, who vanished without a trace almost two years ago.

The judge ruled that the media is « prohibited from publishing in any document or broadcasting or transmitting in any way that the RCMP has identified any person as being involved in the disappearance, alleged kidnapping and murder of Jennifer Hillier-Penney. »

In a Corner Brook court on Friday, Justice George Murphy issued the ban, and noted it applied to all media. That ban does not apply to people unassociated with the police from airing their suspicions or disclosing to the media what the RCMP told them.

The Crown took CBC to court over the issue in advance of The Fifth Estate airing a show on its investigation into the Hillier-Penney case on CBC-TV Oct. 14.

Before making his decision, Murphy heard arguments from the Crown, the CBC’s lawyer and a lawyer for Dean Penney, Hillier-Penney’s estranged husband, who supported the publication ban.

Penney was present in the courtroom Friday but didn’t speak at the hearing, which involved a lengthy debate between the lawyers and the judge on balancing press freedom and police work.

Hillier-Penney was last seen on Nov. 30, 2016, at her estranged husband’s home in St. Anthony. The 38-year-old mother of two was spending the night at Penney’s to look after the couple’s teenaged daughter. Her coat, passport and car keys were all found in the house.

The RCMP labelled her disappearance as suspicious, but have never identified any suspects or persons of interest. Hillier-Penney’s family has been vocal in their belief that she was killed.

The ban will cease if the Mounties lay charges or publicly identify a suspect.

Hillier-Penney was last seen here, at her estranged husband’s house in St. Anthony. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Crown, Penney’s arguments

Crown attorney Adam Sparkes argued that any identification in the media would compromise the ongoing and active police investigation, risking the administration of justice. He specified this was particularly crucial as no charges have been laid.

Sparkes also said CBC employees misrepresented themselves in a letter to Penney asking for an interview.

Penney’s lawyer, Bob Simmonds, said any identification now would compromise any future trial and inhibit jury selection, if those possible events were to occur.

He argued the RCMP made significant errors in their investigation, implicating only one person. Simmonds added Penney is concerned about possible vigilante action against him in his hometown.

Friday’s legal proceedings took place at the courthouse in Corner Brook, N.L. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Freedom of the press

CBC lawyer Amy Crosbie argued against the publication ban. She said the Crown’s fears that a named suspect would compromise the police investigation were too general, and without any substance or elaboration upon those fears, the ban infringed upon freedom of expression.

Elaborating on investigation techniques before any charges are laid defeats the purpose of those techniques, Sparkes responded.

Crosbie said even a narrow ban, such as the one ultimately put in place, compromised the ability of the press to report.

In giving his decision, the judge said he needed to balance the public’s access to information with criminal investigations.

If no suspects are named in one year’s time, the ban expires.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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