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Tamra Keepness was last seen alive inside this rental house near Regina's downtown.

The missing-person flyers taped to the windows at Don's Barber Shop are old and discoloured, dirt and dead bees trapped between them and the glass. But the images of the smiling little girl are still visible to passersby.

Tamra Jewel Keepness was five years old when she disappeared in 2004 from the rundown home around the corner. She was last seen there on a summer night recalled hazily by adults who drank and brawled while the girl and her five siblings, the eldest 11 years old, were left home alone.

The house where Tamra played Nintendo and ate macaroni is still there, but her family is not. Her mother, Lorena Keepness, and stepfather, Dean McArthur, have moved, and several of Ms. Keepness's children are now in provincial care.

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The Globe and Mail sat down with Ms. Keepness and Mr. McArthur for a rare interview at their home, the conversation moving erratically between past and present, tears and anger. There were no pictures of Tamra on display in the living room, which features a broken coffee table and a yellow blanket hanging from a door frame topped with a sign that says HOPE.

The pair lamented the public scrutiny and police interrogation they've faced, saying they love Tamra and believe she's still alive.

"I want her to come home," said Ms. Keepness, a short woman with dark eyes and deep scars from being jumped by a trio accusing her of selling her daughter for drugs.

Tamra's face is etched in the memory of many here, a haunting reminder of an unsolved mystery and of the broader, tragic reality of Canada's more than 1,181 murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls.

Her disappearance also speaks to the challenges police face in investigating long-term missing-person cases; one of the last people believed to have seen her, for instance, is now dead.

Still, Regina police Chief Troy Hagen holds out hope that Tamra is alive and said he's "cautiously optimistic" that police will someday solve the case.

"We're steered and directed by evidence," he said in an interview at police headquarters, not far from the Ottawa Street home where Tamra disappeared. "And there's no reason to believe she isn't [alive], other than the passage of time."

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The Regina Police Service has investigated more than 1,700 tips, the latest of which is a crudely drawn map posted online that purports to identify Tamra's whereabouts on a reserve northeast of the city. It says to "check the wells," an ominous piece of advice investigators plan to heed, using trained divers or cameras, sometime before winter rolls onto the rugged Saulteaux territory.

The map is on the minds of many here in Regina, a city of roughly 200,000 that came together, no matter race or class, to carry out the largest search in its history – a complex effort guided, at times, by the visions and dreams of aboriginal elders.

Residents wonder: Is the map real or is it a hoax? Regardless, the sketch has thrust the Keepness case squarely to the fore, marking another twist in a decade-long roller-coaster ride of fear, hope, longing and frustration.

"We were doing good, we were coasting along, and then all of a sudden there's this map," said Mr. McArthur, who spent six months in jail for assaulting a friend, Russell Sheepskin, outside the Ottawa Street home the night Tamra went missing. "We go good for a while but then … all of a sudden it frickin' gets us into turmoil again."

Mr. McArthur, a cement worker, has always said he left the property after the beating for his aunt's place, while Lorena said she returned home around 3 a.m. and crawled in through a window because the doors were locked. Asked whether Tamra was home at the time, she said, "I don't know."

One Ottawa Street neighbour, who asked not be named citing privacy and safety concerns, said she recalls the evening of July 5, but told police back then that nothing stood out.

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"There was always noise coming from there, so you just didn't pay attention anymore," she said, adding she searched her shed and nearby dumpsters in the wake of Tamra's disappearance.

"I often wonder what happened to her."

Police, under the latest lead investigator on the case, are still trying to figure that out. They have interviewed upward of 500 people. They struck a one-year task force named Project Iskwesis, an abbreviation of a Cree phrase that means "little girl bring people together," to re-examine every lead. Tips continue to trickle in. And yet they've made no arrests.

"It's been a very emotional case at times," said Chief Hagen, sitting in his second-floor office. "There's always a piece of you, I think, that remains unsettled."

Locals and relatives who have kept an eye on the case have their theories, and rumours continue to fly. Ms. Keepness, for her part, said she thinks someone "stole" Tamra, whom she described as her "little Einstein" because of her smarts.

Ms. Keepness makes no bones about her past or the way she lives her life now.

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It's a case of history repeating itself, with one generation after another vulnerable to more of the same.

She's a residential school survivor, and so, too, was her mother. She grew up in an abusive, dysfunctional home on White Bear reserve, ran away to Regina at age 13 and stole food out of the dirt of backyard gardens to survive. She's an admitted alcoholic – she was drinking beer during the interview – and admits to leaving her six children home alone that July night. She started prostituting herself after Tamra went missing.

Through tears, Ms. Keepness expressed frustration that her daughter's case remains unsolved, saying she often dreams of the girl, whose Sweet Sixteen was Sept. 1. "There's nothing that says she's gone," Ms. Keepness said.

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