By Mary Agnes Welch, Winnipeg Free Press, Jan 24, 2014
Some of the names are familiar, such as Cherisse Houle, the 17-year-old found lying face down in a creek just outside Winnipeg.
Some are forgotten, such as Constance Cameron, whose murder 30 years ago has never been solved.
One name is famous — Helen Betty Osborne, whose death is emblematic of violent racism in Manitoba.
Those names and hundreds more appear on a new public database, the first of its kind, created by an Ottawa researcher. It pegs the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada at 824.
That’s significantly higher than the widely used and often-criticized number of 582, cobbled together by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).
The NWAC’s list was never public and could not be scrutinized or validated, but it helped catapult the issue of violence against indigenous women onto the national agenda.
The new research, which dug deeper into the past and the public record, shows the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Manitoba is 111, up from NWAC’s oft-quoted figure of 79.
“I’m not shocked at the number and I know the community is not going to be shocked at the number because we’ve always said it was more,” said Nahanni Fontaine, the province’s special adviser on aboriginal women’s issues. “And of course, each year, tragically, those numbers go up.”
The new database is the first comprehensive and fully public list of missing and murdered aboriginal women, but activists in Ontario are working on a similar one for that province. The database was created by federal civil servant Maryanne Pearce and forms part of her PhD thesis for the University of Ottawa’s law school.
The thesis, along with the database, were submitted last fall and is available online.
To gather a complete list of names, Pearce spent seven years cross-referencing newspaper articles, police websites and reports, court documents and other public sources, much as the NWAC did.
Pearce identified thousands of missing and murdered women and was able to determine 824 were Inuit, Métis or First Nations. Her list includes 115 Manitoba women, but further research suggests four young women listed as missing have been found, two recently.
Pearce could not be reached for comment this week, but her thesis advisers are two well-regarded experts in aboriginal law and social science research.
When contacted about Pearce’s work, they called it “excellent.”
Among her findings, Pearce found 80 per cent of missing or murdered aboriginal women were not in the sex trade. That’s despite the perception most cases involve prostitutes or women engaged in high-risk behaviour.
The perception that many missing or murdered women put themselves in harm’s way has been used to unfairly discount the problem, said Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
Shawna Ferris, a University of Manitoba gender studies professor, agreed, saying much of the reporting on missing and murdered aboriginal women focuses on whether the victims are involved in the sex trade. Mug shots and details of a woman’s street life or addictions don’t help to cultivate public concern.
“Shouldn’t we be aiming for a city where regardless of the trials people are going through, they’re not killed?”
Nepinak said a comprehensive list that can been tested and validated makes it difficult for government, especially Ottawa, to sidestep the issue, and helps bolster the case for a national inquiry into the epidemic of violence against aboriginal women.
“We’ve only scratched the surface of what happened here,” Nepinak said.
Missing, murdered aboriginal women’s cases reviewed
RCMP national probe looking into more than 400 cases
The RCMP says it has completed a “comprehensive file review” of murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls within Mountie jurisdiction — more than 400 in all — and will continue to pursue outstanding cases.
The national police force has reviewed 327 homicide files and 90 missing-persons cases involving aboriginal females, say RCMP briefing notes obtained under the Access to Information Act.
The review represents the latest effort by the Mounties amid public concern about the perils faced by aboriginal women and allegations of police inaction.
A special parliamentary committee is holding hearings on the issue, and calls persist for a full-fledged national inquiry.
Native association working with RCMP
The Native Women’s Association of Canada said Thursday it will give the RCMP its list of aboriginal women who may have met with violence or simply disappeared — but only names gleaned from public sources such as newspapers and posters.
The association is not prepared to provide the Mounties with private details of cases that may have come from family members and friends of the missing.
“We want to be careful in how we do things,” said Claudette Dumont-Smith, executive director of the association.
Drawing on information scattered in often-forgotten public sources, the association spent years compiling a database of 582 cases through the Sisters in Spirit initiative.
The association began working with the RCMP’s National Aboriginal Policing Services branch in 2009 and provided the Mounties with names from its database in cases where there was little information to go on.
The list of 118 names included 60 murdered women or girls, three missing ones and 55 whose status was unknown. Of these, 64 turned up on a police database.
That prompted the RCMP to ask the native women’s association for all 582 names to see if any others could be found in police files, but confidentiality guarantees to family members have delayed further sharing.
Dumont-Smith said the association recently agreed to give the RCMP names that have already been published elsewhere.
“We haven’t determined how we will do that. We’ve only decided that, yes, we would share the names,” she said in an interview.
“I imagine that we’re not just going to release all our 500-and-some names at once. We’ll do it in a progressive fashion, maybe region by region. But that hasn’t been worked out yet.”
Comprehensive list being compiled
The RCMP and the association are working “to reconcile all available data” pertaining to missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls, said Sgt. Greg Cox, an RCMP spokesman. “We have not received all information from NWAC yet, but we expect it shortly.”
Last fall the Mounties shared their figures — 327 murders and 90 missing women — with the native women’s association, Dumont-Smith said.
“They showed us how they got to these numbers. They were very — I found— transparent.”
The RCMP has responsibility for day-to-day policing in only parts of the country, which may account for the discrepancy in the two organizations’ numbers, she said.
She is keen to know more about the RCMP’s list of 90 missing women.
“Are they the same as ours — are they the same names? I think that will be an interesting find, if we both work together on this. That’s what I think will come out of that.”
Cox said Thursday the RCMP’s file review was intended “to capture a statistical snapshot in time” — not uncover new leads or result in investigations.
“Ongoing investigations continue to be carried out by our operational units across Canada.”
The RCMP briefing note, prepared last July, says the force “will remain vigilant in our efforts to resolve all outstanding cases.”