A Hay River woman who was found dead on the side of a highway south of Merritt, B.C. last month was described by her aunt as a loving and compassionate person who had long aspired to be an artist.

Valerie Diamond lights a candle in honour of Brittany Martel. About 40 people gathered near Merritt B.C. to hold a vigil for the Hay River woman on Aug. 1. photo courtesy of Billie Jean Gabriel

While the B.C. Coroners Service is still investigating, RCMP have deemed Brittany Martel’s death as not suspicious.

Brittany’s aunt, Dolly Martel, told News/North on Aug.7 she was not satisfied with the RCMP’s findings.

“When they said it was non-suspicious, I fell to the ground and bawled my eyes out,” she said. “I don’t want my niece to be forgotten. I don’t want her case to be swept under the rug.”

There was shock and sadness in the area where Brittany’s body had been found July 22 and on Aug. 1, about 40 people gathered in Merritt to hold a vigil for the 27-year-old woman, said co-organizer Billie Jean Gabriel.

Gabriel said the group lit candles for Brittany and held a demonstration outside Merritt’s RCMP detachment.

The RCMP’s conclusions are deeply upsetting, she said.

“Brittany’s life mattered. The RCMP have a history of interfering with justice for Indigenous lives,” she said. “Their poorly executed investigative conduct violates our basic human rights. They weren’t linking it to missing and murdered Indigenous women. Nobody wanted to touch the issue.”

She also organized the vigil to support Brittany’s family and to raise funds to help fly her back home and cover funeral costs. A GoFundMe page set up for Brittany and has raised $5,820.

Brittany’s body was flown from B.C. to Hay River where she was buried on Aug. 6.

Dolly said she and her family are grateful for the outpouring of support.

“There’s a lot of anger. There’s a lot of disbelief,” she said. “But I really felt the love for Brittany in the last little bit. I’m glad that there are others out there sharing her story. It really means a lot to our family.”

Dolly described her niece as “a free spirit,” who loved spending time with her family and friends and dreamed of pursuing a career in the arts but who also struggled with addiction.

“I myself experienced addictions too,” said Dolly. “I went down a wrong path for over 20 years. After I sobered up, I tried talking to her. She wanted the life I’m living now and I told her you can do it. You can go back to school and go out there and start doing this stuff. That was one of her dreams.

“She was always smiling, laughing and telling jokes. She always told everyone that she loved them and she was so much fun to be around.

“Everybody loved her, everybody wanted to help her,” she continued. “We had a lot of reasons to love Brittany.”

The oldest of six siblings, Brittany was a mother figure to her brothers and sisters, said Dolly.

“She loved them all,” said Dolly. “Despite all her problems.”

An RCMP news release stated a motorist who had left their vehicle when an accident stopped traffic on the busy highway discovered Brittany’s body on July 22 about 20 minutes south of Merritt.

Dolly said Brittany was found without shoes or a cellphone. In the weeks leading up to her death, she had been travelling around B.C. with her boyfriend, she said.

Police are saying her death is not suspicious.

“No criminality is suspected,” stated a July 31 news release from the Merritt RCMP.

Staff Sgt. Lorne Wood of the Merritt RCMP told News/North their conclusion was based on an autopsy and other information.

“I can’t really get into the specifics of that but just basically that there’s no evidence of anything criminal in nature that resulted in the young woman’s death,” he said.

Wood noted the B.C. Coroners Service is still investigating and the RCMP is assisting.

“There will be no official cause of death until that investigation has been completed with the B.C. Coroners Service,” he said.

Wood said the RCMP – based on sightings of the young woman in the days leading up to her death – now have a better idea of when she died.

“But that’s still part of the coroner’s investigation now,” he said. “So I can’t really comment on that.”

In addition, Wood said it doesn’t appear that she was hitchhiking at the time.

“We have determined how she came to be there, which again we’ve shared with the Coroners Service and they’re following up on it, as well,” he said, adding he could not reveal that information at this point.

– with files from Paul Bickford

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