New list of missing, murdered aboriginal women gives families hope

The number of missing and murdered women in Canada may be much higher than previously believed, new research shows, giving hope to families seeking answers about their loved ones.

Families seeking loved ones hope new database will spark fresh action from the RCMP

Wilfred, left, and Bernice Catcheway have posted a photograph on their truck of their daughter, Jennifer, who went missing in June 2008, along with a police phone number that people can call if they have information about her disappearance. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

The number of missing and murdered women in Canada may be much higher than previously believed, new research shows, giving hope to families seeking answers about their loved ones the new figures will spark fresh action from the RCMP.

The PhD thesis research by Maryanne Pearce, a federal civil servant in Ottawa, has resulted in a database of missing or dead Canadian women, 824 of whom are identified as aboriginal.

Pearce cross-referenced newspaper articles, police reports, court documents and other resources as part of her database.

The latest figure is much higher than the 582 names the Native Women's Association of Canada compiled and handed over to the RCMP in 2009.

Family members of those who have gone missing or have been killed say they hope the new list will push the RCMP to search harder.

"Somebody out there knows where these people are," said Bernice Catcheway, whose daughter, Jennifer, went missing in Manitoba in June 2008.

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"Somebody stole my daughter, and that's the hardest thing a parent can go through … just not knowing where she is is a nightmare."

Nahanni Fontaine, a special adviser on aboriginal women's issues for the Manitoba government, says she hopes the newest figures will bring some comfort to families.

"It legitimizes the spirit of their loved one, and that their loved one existed, and that they're not forgotten," she said.

The research presents "the opportunity again to galvanize non-aboriginal Canadians and get behind this issue," Fontaine added. "If they had been missed in previous reports, now they're here. And so I think that that really goes a long way with families."

RCMP reviewed hundreds of cases

It was revealed this week that the RCMP has completed a "comprehensive file review" of murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls within Mountie jurisdiction.

The national police force has reviewed 327 homicide files and 90 missing-persons cases involving aboriginal females, according to  RCMP briefing notes obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act. 

"This is of great priority to the RCMP," Supt. Tyler Bates, director of national aboriginal policing and crime prevention services, told CBC News. "We continue to work diligently to resolve any of the outstanding cases that remain, whether it be historical homicides or contemporary ones."

Bates noted that some of the cases in the new database will be outside RCMP jurisdiction.

The RCMP review represents the latest effort by the police force amid public concern about the perils faced by aboriginal women, and allegations of police inaction.

A special parliamentary committee is holding hearings on the issue.

Aboriginal groups along with some provinces, such as Manitoba, have been pressing for a full-fledged national inquiry.

"What is going to be the action that the RCMP are gonna take? Are they gonna look at these cases, meeting with these families and following through?" asked Bernadette Smith, whose sister, Claudette Osborne, vanished in Winnipeg in July 2008.

Smith said she expects the RCMP to follow up on the new names that have come up in the latest database.

"When my sister went missing, we were told, 'Oh, she's probably out partying somewhere, she'll turn up.' You know, so we were just kind of just brushed off, and I think that's still happening," she said.

Smith and other family members are holding a vigil in Winnipeg on Saturday afternoon to remember Osborne, who was 21 when she went missing.