RCMP are gathering DNA samples from men and boys on a remote Manitoba First Nation in an effort to solve the homicide of 11-year-old Teresa Robinson, but a civil liberties advocate and northern leaders are raising questions about the investigative tactic.
Garden Hill Chief Arnold Flett said officers arrived in his community, 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, on the weekend.
Since then, officers have been getting samples from males between 15-66 years old, said spokesman Bert Paquet, noting that all samples are being given to officers voluntarily.
He's not sure how long it will take to gather all of the samples from the estimated 2,000 boys and men.
Paquet said the tactic of collecting DNA isn't new for an investigation but the "magnitude of the task in this specific case is unusual."
"It truly demonstrates the length investigators are willing to go in order to bring an unsolved case to a successful conclusion," he said. "'Unsolved' is a term that does not sit comfortably with any of the officers I know."
Teresa's body was found May 11, 2015, just three days before her 12th birthday. Initially, it was believed she had been mauled by an animal, but RCMP later said she was the victim of a homicide.
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First Nation leaders told CBC News that Teresa was last seen leaving a birthday party in Garden Hill on May 5, 2015. A local search began after she didn't return home but RCMP weren't notified until May 8.
Her body was found three days later and an autopsy was performed, which led police to declare her death a homicide.
'Are you hiding something?'
Corey Shefman, a human rights lawyer in Winnipeg and past president of the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties, says he doesn't believe people are really being invited to offer DNA samples voluntarily.
"Particularly if you're an indigenous person, if a police officer shows up at your door and says, 'We'd like you to voluntarily give us some of your DNA,' if you were to say no, the next thing to come out of their mouths is not going to be 'OK, thanks, have a nice day.' It's going to be, 'Why don't you want to give us your DNA? Are you hiding something?' So by refusing, you're making yourself suspect number one. It isn't truly voluntary," he said.
Shefman added that questions must be asked about making generalizations and sweeping conclusions about a group of people — in this case, a First Nations community.
"Some 60 per cent of people in Manitoba jails are indigenous and we can't ignore that context, particularly because when we talk about how they're going to door-to-door, they're asking for people to voluntarily give DNA in Garden Hill First Nation. They're not going door-to-door in River Heights," he said.
Shefman said he also has concerns about what will happen to the collected DNA samples.
"My understanding is they don't simply destroy it. It goes into the national DNA database, which can be accessed by law enforcement," he said.
But Paquet said the DNA samples would not be put into a database for other investigations.
"They are collected for the purpose of this investigation only. It is explained in our requests for DNA samples when we collect them," he said.
Most have complied, says chief
Anyone who is a minor had to have their parents' or guardians' consent for police to gather a sample, Flett said, adding that most have complied.
"I think the majority of them welcome this move because they want the case solved," he said. "People have been getting impatient and wanting to know what's being done. Now they know that the investigation is still ongoing."
Northern chiefs' group has questions
The head of the group that represents northern First Nations says she "has questions" about what the RCMP are doing in the community.
Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), said while she supports the RCMP's investigation into the case, she is meeting with them in Winnipeg Thursday on this and other issues.