Missing and murdered aboriginal women's families want action from RCMP report

Loved ones of missing and murdered aboriginal women say they hope the RCMP will follow through on recommendations made in a new report and work more closely with families.

Sister of missing woman says families need to know loved ones' cases 'aren't sitting on a shelf somewhere'

An RCMP report says aboriginal women have been much more prone to violent death than non-natives, but police have solved cases involving both groups at almost the same rate. 1:58

Loved ones of missing and murdered aboriginal women say they hope the RCMP will follow through on recommendations made in a new report and work more closely with families.

The RCMP's National Operational Overview on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, released Friday in Winnipeg, found that aboriginal women are over-represented in cases of missing and murdered women compared with non-natives.

The report found that aboriginal women account for 4.3 per cent of the overall Canadian female population yet account for 16 per cent of female homicides and 11.3 per cent of the cases of missing women.

Officials said there have been 1,181 police-recorded aboriginal homicides and unresolved missing women investigations over the past three decades — a much higher number than previously thought.

"Six years ago, 500 was shocking. But since then it's more than doubled," said Wilfred Catcheway, whose daughter, Jennifer, has been missing since her 18th birthday in 2008.

Bernadette Smith, whose 21-year-old sister, Claudette Osborne, has been missing since July 2008, said police and victims' families need to work together.

"We're not asking for information on the case. All we're asking for is, you know, a relationship to be built that's built on trust so that we know that our loved ones' cases aren't sitting on a shelf somewhere," she said.

While RCMP officials spoke to reporters about the report's findings on Friday, a group of people drummed outside and sang an honour song for missing and murdered women.

Missing persons strategy pledged

RCMP said they are dedicating "resources to develop a national missing persons strategy" that will guide the police force's approach to missing persons cases.

Elder Marielee Nault gives a blessing at the start of the RCMP's news conference on Friday morning. (Genevieve Murchison/CBC)
The police force also pledged to create a mandatory national missing persons intake form and implement a national risk assessment tool as an investigative aid.

Officials said they want to ensure there is necessary supervision on missing person investigations and that officers provide more timely communication with families.

Smith said she's glad to see the RCMP commit to keep communications open to victims' families, but she wishes that was the case when her sister went missing.

"When my sister went missing it took them 10 days before they investigated," she said.

"We knew her, we love her, we know that that was out of character for her; there was no way that she wouldn't contact a family member on a daily basis."

'Big numbers game,' says family member

The RCMP report provided little comfort to Candy Volk, whose 18-year-old niece, Hillary Wilson, was found dead outside Winnipeg in August 2009.

"They just kept going on about the statistics and percentages," Volk said. "It was all like a big numbers game to them. And that's all they gave us … what we already knew."

Police have treated Wilson's death as a homicide, but no arrests have been made.

The report challenges accusations from some quarters that aboriginal deaths are not taken as seriously by police. The "solve" rates are almost identical, at 88 per cent for aboriginal women and 89 per cent for others.

"The general consensus among the aboriginal community is that none of the files have been completed, nobody's been brought to trial or to justice, and so those were the numbers that were surprising," said Nahanni Fontaine, the Manitoba government's special adviser on aboriginal women's issues.

Fontaine, who has worked closely with victims' families, said it's important to know that police are making progress in cases.

The report also indicates that a small minority of missing and murdered aboriginal women had been involved in the sex trade — 12 per cent versus five per cent among non-native women.

Karen Harper, a community liaison with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said she hopes the general public will finally recognize the true scope of the issue and not simply assume the victims were sex-trade workers.

"That they will come alongside and bring that support, instead of the negativity of, 'Oh, well, they chose that,'" Harper said.

'Beginning of a process for us'

The Mounties say they are sharing the data with other police forces, which have jurisdiction for roughly half of the unsolved cases, and have directed their own divisions to review any outstanding matters.

They are also promising to add resources to investigative units where needed.

RCMP officials said the 22-page report requires a response from all Canadians.

"I don't think we have all the answers that we need right now, no, and I think this is the beginning of a process for us," Janice Armstrong, the RCMP's deputy commissioner for contract and aboriginal policing, told reporters.

"We still have a lot of unanswered questions, as you'll see through the report, and we've posed them."

Volk said the RCMP should have held off on releasing the report until they had a concrete action plan.

She added that what she really wants is a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

"That would have given us hope," she said, her voice breaking. "Because right now, we need hope."