Families of missing and murdered indigenous women give police a failing grade

CBC News has launched a nationwide special series that reveals an intensive, updated look at over 200 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, stretching back to 1951.

CBC probes 230 unsolved cases, interviews 110 families

Police get a failing grade

8 years ago
Duration 1:26
Families of missing and murdered indigenous women have little respect for police investigations. CBC News probes 230 unsolved cases, interviews 110 families

Police departments across Canada get a failing grade for their efforts at solving cases of missing and murdered indigenous women, according to CBC interviews with more than 110 family members.

CBC News has embarked on an exhaustive search for families who have lost a relative either to an unsolved killing or whose loved one still remains missing. 

So far, more than 110 families have responded to questions ranging from the efficacy of police investigations to the need for a national inquiry.

Families were asked to rate the quality of the police investigation in each case, on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being excellent. The average rating was 2.8.

Katie Ballantyne was killed in Edmonton in 2003. Her case remains unsolved. (Supplied)

"I think all the murder cases of high-risk people, whether you're white or whether you're an Indian or whether you're Spanish ... you're treated like scum," says Victoria Merasty, mother of 40-year-old Katie Ballantyne who was killed in Edmonton in 2003. Her case remains unsolved.

"I feel like the police are not taking interest in anything that has anything to do with the aboriginal people," said Maria Pia Benuen, whose best friend Henrietta Millek disappeared from St. John's in 1982. The case has also never been solved.

CBC News has identified about 230 examples of unsolved murders and missing person cases among indigenous women and girls, stretching back to 1951.

British Columbia has the highest number of unsolved incidents, at 65. Alberta is second with 51 cases, followed by Manitoba with 46 and Saskatchewan with 29.

First time anyone called

Many family members and friends of missing and murdered women said the call from CBC News was the first time they had been contacted about their relative.
Nancy Dumas disappeared in Lynn Lake, MB., in 1987. Her case remains unsolved. (Supplied)
Community leaders had a similar response.

"This is the first time anyone has ever called me in regards to what's happened to aboriginal people in the town of Lynn Lake," said Chief Andrew Colomb, leader of the Marcel Colomb First Nation, near Lynn Lake, Man.

Nancy Dumas disappeared in Lynn Lake in 1987 and her case remains unsolved. 

"Somewhat, you've given me some confidence and some spirits up here," Colomb said.

About 70 per cent of family members expressed the desire for a national inquiry into the issue, a call that has so far been rejected by the federal government.

This is the first time anyone has ever called me in regards to what's happened to aboriginal people in the town of Lynn Lake- Chief Andrew Colomb of the Marcel Colomb First Nation, near Lynn Lake

Of the cases where the age of the women is known, about one-quarter of those that are still unsolved involve individuals under the age of 20, according to the CBC data. 

The cases identified by CBC span 63 years, with the oldest incident being the 1951 disappearance of Margaret Blackbird in Saskatchewan. Blackbird was 21 when she went missing from Loon Lake, never to be seen again.

Of the cases where CBC was able to locate and interview family members, and where the family members or police knew the lifestyle of their relative, 60 per cent say their relatives were involved in high-risk activities like sex-trade work, hitchhiking or serious drug and alcohol use.

Praise and dismay

While some family members praised the efforts of police, many others expressed dismay that officers dismissed their concerns because of the lifestyle of their relatives. 

In many cases, police couldn't be initially convinced to initiate a missing person's investigation.
Fonessa Bruyere was 17 when she was killed in Winnipeg in 2007. (Supplied)
Crystal Bruyere is a cousin of Fonessa Bruyere, who was 17 when she was killed in Winnipeg in 2007. She said her grandmother was rebuffed when she first went to police.

"Oh, she's just a prostitute, she's probably just on a binge, she'll come home," was the police response, according to Bruyere. 

Of the families CBC News interviewed, nearly 70 per cent said their relative went missing or was found dead in an urban area (an area with a population greater than 10,000).

While a number of police task forces have been at work for years trying to solve cold cases, there has been little progress.

An integrated police task force in Manitoba, which eventually became Project Devote, has solved one case in the last five years. 

Project Kare in Alberta has been able to secure three convictions since it began its work of looking into sex trade worker homicides in the Edmonton area in 2003.

'Not given the resources necessary'

In British Columbia, the Highway of Tears task force has been able to solve one case and make an additional arrest in one other incident since 2005, when it began looking into unsolved murders with links to Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert. 

Ray Michalko, an RCMP officer turned private investigator in Vancouver, said police could have done more on many cases.

"I know as far as Highway of Tears cases, police officers themselves have said, had they had the resources and manpower, that they could have solved some of these cases at the time," Michalko said.

Oh, she's just a prostitute, she's probably just on a binge, she'll come home- Crystal Bruyere, cousin of Fonessa Bruyere, describing police response

"It seems to me in a number of cases ... the officers on the road wanted to solve the cases. It's not like they didn't do anything because they were prejudiced, they wanted to do something, but were not given the resources necessary to accomplish the job by someone up the chain of command."

RCMP Staff Sgt. Wayne Clary, head of the Highway of Tears task force, said he understands the frustrations of families.

"We get rapped on the chin for all different things. And a lot of them — some are justified, but a lot aren't, and we can't come back to clear it up because that's kind of the way we are."

Clary said the burden of proof means suspicions and suspects aren't enough.

"I have worked on files in the past, I am not going to say which ones, where we know exactly who did it," he said. "And we just can't freakin' prove it. And it's frustrating."