Monday, October 18, 2010

Mother's search for missing daughter comes to an end

Frances Ann Young went for a walk on Easter weekend 14 years ago and never returned.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 18, 2010


A paid obituary typically includes a list of survivors, as well as predeceased family members. How, then, do you cite a missing daughter?

Michael Young, a marine pilot, recently wrote a farewell notice for his mother, Patricia Cowan, who died in Victoria earlier this month after suffering a stroke. “Pat can finally be at peace,” he wrote, “from her relentless search for her eldest daughter Frances Young [who] went missing in the spring of 1996.”

A world of heartache is captured in that simple sentence.

On Easter weekend 14 years ago, at about 9:30 p.m. on Saturday night, Fran Young donned a long leather coat over a green sweater her magnificent auburn curls cascading past her shoulders. Her boyfriend later said she told him she was going for a walk.

The 36-year-old pastry chef never returned.

On Monday morning, her boyfriend informed the family. Pat Cowan immediately reported her missing to Vancouver police. Their response was less than what she hoped. The police noted Ms. Young’s history of depression and heroin use. She would turn up.

Pat Cowan 
A mother, brother and two sisters tried to generate publicity to help them in their search. They issued a news release. Mr. Young remembers hearing a brief mention on a Vancouver radio station, but, later that day, Premier Glen Clark called an election and the travails of a desperate family were overwhelmed by more urgent matters.

The family posted flyers on telephone polls in the Kitsilano neighbourhood she had called home for a decade, as well as in the downtown eastside.

They learned she was not the first woman to go missing, nor the last. The seeming indifference of the police in her whereabouts at the time was also, tragically, not unique.

A determined mother never eased her search for a daughter who vanished. She contacted politicians, gathered signatures on petitions, networked on social media sites. She launched a website, as well as a Facebook page, both called “Find Fran.”

On the latter, she posted a picture of a small wooden box inside which was a slip of paper like that found in a fortune cookie. “Every night at bedtime, the dream box is held and I think about my dream of finding my daughter,” she wrote. “Legend has it, if done faithfully, my dream will come true.” The slip contained just two words: “Fran found.”

She died never having abandoned hope her daughter might one day come home. It was a faith all the more admirable for her having endured tragedy at a very early age.

As a girl, Pat Cowan lived in Saanichton on Vancouver Island with her mother and three sisters. Her father, Major George Paxton Cowan, a prominent sportsman, was serving overseas as a battery commander of a Royal Canadian Artillery field unit. He had been mentioned in despatches. In 1944, he was killed in action while fighting to breach the Hitler Line near Monte Cassino in Italy. Pat was aged six when she lost her father.

She did well in school, becoming a stenographer and, later, a licensed practical nurse. A first marriage, which ended in divorce, produced four children — Michael, Peter, Lynda, and Frances Ann.

She was indefatigable in the hunt for her daughter. “It was 24/7 with her,” her own sister said. Much of a significant inheritance was spent on private investigators — some genuine, some fraudulent — in her desire for clues.

“My mother spent a lot of time, money and effort to find her,” Mr. Young said.

“She did what she could.”

Eight years ago, Robert (Willie) Pickton was told by police that he was under investigation in the disappearance of dozens on missing women. Fran was included on the list. He was convicted of killing six women and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. He was not charged in Ms. Young’s disappearance.

Fran Young makes a cameo appearance in the book “On the Farm” (Knopf Canada), the journalist Stevie Cameron’s harrowing account of the case of Vancouver’s missing women.

“Fran loved doing embroidery, she could paint and draw beautifully, she enjoyed her cats and dogs, and she got a kick out of life,” Ms. Cameron writes. “Best of all, her family was behind her. She had a big, happy smile that disarmed everyone who met her.”

Her brother told me: “I think she just got into the wrong crowd. The party never stopped.”

He added: “Somebody somewhere must know something.”

He buried his mother’s ashes this weekend next to his grandmother’s grave in the cemetery at Savona, overlooking the western end of picturesque Kamloops Lake.

“A beautiful spot,” he said.

Pat Cowan will be remembered for her fierce advocacy on behalf of a daughter whose own sad fate remains a mystery.

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