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The body of Hillary Angel Wilson, 18, was discovered Aug. 20. ((CBC))

The Manitoba government, RCMP and Winnipeg Police Service formally established a task force Wednesday to review cases involving missing and murdered women in the province.

"The province is supporting police in this vital task," Attorney General Dave Chomiak said.

"These women were mothers, daughters, sisters and friends. Many are aboriginal. We share a common goal with the police, helping as they seek answers in these cases. The unit will help move these investigations to the next level."

Members of the Manitoba Integrated Task Force for Missing and Murdered Women are experienced investigators, Chomiak said, noting the unit includes three RCMP officers, two RCMP analysts and four officers from the Winnipeg Police Service.

The province is also represented on the task force steering committee and will provide additional resources as needed, Chomiak said.

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Cherisse Houle's body was found July 1 in a creek near a section of dirt road just off Highway 221. ((Photo courtesy Houle family))

"We all want answers and we all want closure and we all want a safe community for everyone. The task force, it's [an] integrated task force being announced today,… is a culmination of some extensive discussions. It's part of a significant piece of which several other portions will be announced in the next several weeks."

RCMP Assistant Commissioner Bill Robinson said: "We understand that the families and loved ones of missing persons and victims of crime are eager to have their many questions answered. By bringing members of the RCMP and the Winnipeg Police Service to work more closely together in one location, we aim to hasten the process of providing some answers to their many questions."

The unit's focus will be:

  • the review and investigation of unsolved homicide files involving female victims.
  • the review of missing-person files involving female victims where foul play is suspected.
  • analysis of those files to determine what, if any, links exist between the incidents.

"What makes this different from everything else that we've been doing is these people will be dedicated on a full-time basis to reviewing the file of murdered women and missing women where foul play is suspected. Not only will this unit be working on these files, but this unit will be utilizing and leveraging many major crime and serious crime ... resources that exist both in the RCMP in Manitoba and in the Winnipeg Police Service," Robinson said.

'I think it's become certainly clear to us that every homicide, every murder and involving any woman, we recognize that there's a lot of sadness and anxiety and fear out in the communities.'—RCMP Assistant Commissioner Bill Robinson

"For example, in Manitoba we have approximately 45 major crime, serious crime investigators posted throughout the province. We have more on our violent crime analysis section to draw from.

"At the end of the day what we hope to do is look at these files for links, and then bring in people that can help us, such as behavioural-science folks from our national headquarters or from other areas of the country that can look and tell us what links possibly exist and to tell us how we might attack those processes."

The unit will have access to the combined resources of both police organizations, including the Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System database and the Project Disappear website. Its structure is similar to the successful Integrated Organized Crime Task Force, which is a partnership involving investigators from the RCMP, Winnipeg police, Brandon Police Service and other municipal police agencies, backed up with resources from the province.

"I think it's become certainly clear to us that every homicide, every murder and involving any woman, we recognize that there's a lot of sadness and anxiety and fear out in the communities. We want to involve the communities and we want to hear from the communities relative to this work," Robinson said.

Public outcry

There was no mention of the cost to operate the new task force, which comes on the heels of growing public concern over the number of women vanishing from Manitoba streets.

Just prior to the announcement, advocates and family members rallied at the Manitoba legislature. They said far too many aboriginal women have gone missing or have been murdered in Manitoba and no one has been held responsible.

Many said it will take a well-financed task force for police and the public to take the tragedies seriously.

Bernadette Smith's sister Claudette Osborne has been missing for just over a year. Smith, who organized Wednesday's rally, said a task force has been needed for a while.

'It is vitally important that we review every piece of evidence in these cases, to bring closure for the families and to bring offenders to justice.'—Winnipeg police Chief Keith McCaskill

"We shouldn't have all these other girls go missing," Smith said.

At least 16 officers from the RCMP and Winnipeg police should be dedicated to investigating the growing number of women who have gone missing, many of whom are aboriginal, she said.

Every time police announce a woman's body has been found, Smith said, her family wonders whether it's 21-year-old Osborne. Families are suffering and they deserve answers, Smith added.

"There are many out there that are waiting," she said. "It's hard to go on with your life when you have someone out there that's missing."

75 missing

Over the last two decades, 75 aboriginal women have gone missing in Manitoba, according to aboriginal groups. None of Chomiak, the Winnipeg police and the RCMP would put a number on the quantity of cases they expect to review.

Most recently, the bodies of Cherisse Houle, 17, and Hillary Angel Wilson, 18, were discovered dumped in areas just outside the city.

On July 1, Houle's dead body was uncovered by a construction crew working near the shore of Sturgeon Creek in the Rural Municipality of Rosser, northwest of Winnipeg. Wilson's body was found Aug. 20 on a dirt path in a sparsely populated area in East St. Paul.

"This initiative will enhance and integrate our abilities to share information and work more closely with our partners," Winnipeg police Chief Keith McCaskill said Wednesday. "It is vitally important that we review every piece of evidence in these cases, to bring closure for the families and to bring offenders to justice."

Said Chomiak: "Answers to missing and murdered women in every jurisdiction are very elusive and very difficult, and part of the role of the integrated task force will look into the dark spots and look into some of the gaps to ensure that everything possible has been done and can be done."

Anyone with information about missing or murdered women or any other unsolved crime is encouraged to contact Winnipeg Crime Stoppers at 204-786-TIPS (8477).

With files from The Canadian Press