What happened to Ms. R? Judge lets missing woman stay missing
Newly enacted Missing Persons Act balances public safety with privacy rights of mysterious people
She is known as Ms. R — as much a mystery to her co-workers as to her family.
With a change of hair, location and employment, she may be living in your town. She may be bagging groceries beside you.
Ms. R also happens to be one of the thousands of people reported missing in Canada every year.
And according to a recently published B.C. provincial court decision, she likely has no desire to be found.
In a ruling that represents a test of the balance between privacy and public safety promised by B.C.'s newly enacted Missing Persons Act, Judge Ted Gouge decided not to give police access to Ms. R's banking records.
She hasn't contacted her sister or her daughter for well over a year. But Gouge said that is Ms. R's right.
"In this case, the evidence discloses no cause for concern as to Ms. R's safety," he wrote.
"The evidence supports the inference that she does not want to be found. She may simply want nothing to do with her sister or her daughter. She is entitled to make those choices."
The right to go missing
The decision provides a window into the legal considerations behind missing persons legislation enacted in provinces across the country in recent years.
Wally Oppal chaired the commission, which examined the circumstances and investigations surrounding the disappearances of women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
He says the act was needed to provide police with tools to gain access to records vital in the search for vulnerable or at-risk people who might be in jeopardy.
But Oppal says lawmakers also had to recognize the right of some people to disappear.
"On the one hand you have the right to privacy and the right to go missing," he said.
"But where there is a situation that may call out for a police investigation then the police must get involved. That's what the law is now."
'A secretive person'
The key to Ms. R's identity lies in a sealed court file in the Campbell River registry. Gouge held the hearing into the police application in a closed courtroom.
The investigation began three days before last Christmas, when Ms. R's sister told RCMP she hadn't heard from her since the summer of 2014.
Last month, police obtained an order — also under the Missing Persons Act — for Service Canada to disclose records which showed Ms. R had been working at a grocery store in an undisclosed Canadian community from March to May of 2015.
Police in that town spoke to several employees.
Here's how they described her: "Ms. R was a secretive person who did not disclose much information about herself, that she had an ex-spouse in British Columbia whom she feared and from whom she had fled, that she changed her appearance (including her hair colour and glasses) during the two months that she worked with them, and that she left unexpectedly on May 12, 2015 and never returned."
An interview with Ms. R's daughter — who hadn't heard from her mother since the spring of 2014 — threw doubt on even those scant facts.
"She described her mother as manipulative and dishonest and puts little credence in the suggestion that Ms. R may be fleeing from an abusive relationship," Gouge wrote.
"She says that her parents' relationship was abusive, but that it ended more than 30 years ago."
The real reason Ms. R disappeared?
A records search suggested Ms. R may have been fleeing something else entirely: warrants for her arrest on charges of fraud and theft in B.C., Alberta and Ontario.
"The outstanding warrants for her arrest provide another plausible reason for Ms. R's decision to depart without leaving a forwarding address," Gouge wrote.
Police wanted the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce to cough up Ms. R's banking information.
The investigating officer explained that those details might include the location of ATM withdrawals and — ultimately — Ms. R.
But whereas the first order under the Missing Persons Act was required for Service Canada to prove Ms. R was still alive, the second might serve to pinpoint a woman who didn't appear to be in imminent danger.
Gouge noted that in introducing the Missing Persons Act to the legislature, Attorney General Suzanne Anton promised the bill was "not about criminal activity."
"The Missing Persons Act should never be used by the police as a tool to assist in the execution of a warrant," Gouge wrote.
"If the RCMP succeed in locating Ms. R, it will be their duty to execute the outstanding warrants for her arrest. So, the unintended consequence of the order sought may well be disadvantageous to Ms. R."
Gouge acknowledged the legitimate public interest in bringing Ms. R to justice — but not at the cost of her right to privacy.
The court file is to remain sealed. As is the mystery of Ms. R.