Salt Spring resident Sinikka Elliott is being remembered for her warm personality and her influential academic research following her disappearance and sudden death earlier this week.
Elliott, age 51, was an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and the mother of two adult children. A massive search and rescue operation that was triggered when she went missing on May 12 ended tragically with the discovery of her body on the south side of Mount Erskine on May 15.
Sarah Bowen was a colleague and friend of Elliott’s from North Carolina State University, where Elliott worked before UBC. Together with Josyln Brenton, they co-authored the book Pressure Cooker, which is about food systems and inequity in the United States. Elliott and Bowen had also worked together on a longitudinal project on food insecurity.
As Bowen wrote about Elliott on Twitter: “I can’t believe she is gone, and I will never forget her. Her mark on me is permanent.”
“We have been working on several projects together this semester and just met (by Zoom) a few weeks ago,” Bowen told the Driftwood on Monday. “I think that she was happy to return to Canada, where she had grown up, and happy to be building a home on Salt Spring Island with her partner. She often talked about how beautiful the island was.”
Guy Stecklov offered a statement of condolence on behalf of UBC’s Department of Sociology over the weekend. He noted Elliott had joined the department in 2017 and that her research concentrated on family, social inequality and social policy.
“As department head, I have had the honour of working with Sinikka and have gained, as have so many others, from her unwavering passion for both understanding and addressing longstanding systematic inequalities pervading society,” Stecklov wrote.
“Sinikka was an exceptionally skilled and deeply engaged scholar with a deep-felt commitment to social justice and equality for all.”
The University of Texas at Austin, where Elliott received her doctorate in 2008, similarly mourned her loss.
“A kind and generous person, Sinikka was a friend and mentor to many generations of UT students. She was deeply committed to social justice and brought empathy and sensitivity to everything she did,” a statement from the Department of Sociology reads.
The search for Elliott was initiated last Wednesday evening after she failed to come home from doing errands that morning. SAR members discovered her car that night at the end of Southern Way (previously reported as Juniper Place) near the Mount Erskine trailhead. The search continued until 11 p.m. that night without success.
Over the course of the next three days, a total 139 searchers from 21 search and rescue groups from Salt Spring, Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, plus four SAR canine teams, were on the ground trying to find her. Volunteers arrived from Juan de Fuca, Metchosin, Peninsula Emergency Measures Organization, Cowichan, Nanaimo, Ladysmith, Arrowsmith, Alberni Valley Rescue Squad, Westcoast Inland SAR, Comox Valley GSAR, Campbell River SAR, Powell River, Sunshine Coast, Squamish, Lions Bay, North Shore, Coquitlam, South Fraser, Mission, Ridge Meadows, Central Fraser Valley search and rescue groups.
Local RCMP, RCMP Police Dog Service, off-island RCMP support and RCMP air resources were also deployed each day.
Elliott’s body was eventually discovered by a civilian on Saturday morning. Police were called to the end of Toynbee Road around 11 a.m. and a helicopter crew was active on the mountain during the early afternoon.
RCMP do not believe Elliott’s death is a criminal matter. BC Coroners Service is now investigating to determine “how, where, when and by what means” she came to her death.
Searchers were supported by multiple island businesses and organizations, with local stores, restaurants and farms donating food and loaning or donating equipment, transportation and facilities. Commercial accommodations providers were flexible in housing all the off-island searchers for stays of unknown length.
“We are extremely grateful to the local community for all their support in our operations,” said Salt Spring SAR search manager Zeke Blazecka.
Salt Spring RCMP also extended their thanks to all the volunteers and community supporters.
Messages from Elliott’s colleagues hoping to spread the word during the search, and those expressing their love and condolences afterwards, are plentiful on Twitter. Many people spoke about Elliott’s positive influence on their academic careers as well as her personal character.
“This is so devastating. Sinikka Elliott has been a role model for me since I started grad school,” Katie Kaufman Rogers wrote in one tweet. “I did not know her well, but her approach to ethnographic research and feminist scholarship is an example for all of us. She will be missed.”
Organizations that donated items or otherwise aided the searchers were:
Food — Country Grocer, Harbour House Hotel, Embe Bakery, Switchboard Cafe, North End Farm and Laughing Daughters gluten-free bakery. Uptown Pizza, Salt Spring Pies, Thrifty Foods and Dos Amores, as organized by Corina Walde, were additionally committed to supplying dinner Saturday night if the search had continued.
Accommodation — The Cottages on Salt Spring, Harbour House Hotel, Seabreeze Motel, Salt Spring Inn
Equipment — Royal Canadian Legion Branch 92 and Tom Woods, Windsor Plywood, Mouat’s Home Hardware
Locations — Salt Spring Fire Rescue, Capital Regional District/Salt Spring Parks and Recreation
Transportation — Salt Spring Island Tours, Royal Canadian Marine SAR
Sanitation — Cal Mills