No stone left unturned: MMIWG families skeptical police will change

Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls have little faith the national inquiry's recommendations on policing will make a big difference, but the RCMP says it has already made improvements in the way these cases are investigated.

'That's how justice works for us. We don't get taken seriously,' says sister of teen missing since 1996

Amanda Bartlett's family searched a large open area on the outskirts of Winnipeg in 2013 on the advice of a medium who told them a missing woman may be found there. Bartlett was last seen in 1996 when she was 17 years old. (CBC News)

In the more than two decades since Amanda Sophia Bartlett went missing, her family says dealing with police has been frustrating.

Bartlett's sister Janet Lowther has little faith much will change with the release of the final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

"I didn't even have faith in the inquiry," she said Monday from her home on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba. "If we want change and we want a better future, a safer future, for our girls, we have to start this at home."

Bartlett disappeared from a Winnipeg group home in 1996. Lowther says her mother was not informed for weeks.

The family was bounced between multiple police forces for years, which felt like "a wild goose chase."

Lowther said officers asked why she bothered to search for her sister after so many years. She was told the RCMP didn't "do family reunions."

"That's how justice works for us," she said. "We don't get taken seriously. You know it's sad and it continues on today."  

Bartlett's missing person case was eventually opened in 2008, following help from Amnesty International.

It's now part of the joint RCMP-Winnipeg police task force, Project Devote, which was set up in 2011 to deal with cases of missing and murdered indigenous women.

"I felt progress, I really did," Lowther said at the time.

Janet Lowther got this tattoo on the 20th anniversary of her sister's disappearance. No one knows what happened to Amanda Bartlett. (CBC News)

Unsolved but not closed

The RCMP points to Project Devote as one example of how it's responding differently to these cases, not only in a more culturally-aware and victim-sensitive approach, but in initiatives that put real resources into investigating cold cases.

There are currently 16 officers investigating 29 cases, including that of Amanda Bartlett.

They are working across jurisdictional lines to share information and provide a second set of eyes on each other's work. There is also a liaison whose job is to keep families informed.

"They're looking at all of these files literally with a fine tooth comb ... and the paper is literally like tissue paper because it's so old but trying to read the notes and following up on absolutely every avenue," Cpl. Laura Ledrew, an investigator in the RCMP's missing and exploited persons unit in Manitoba, said Monday.

"Almost holding hands with another jurisdictional police force to get to the end goal."

In April, officers went door-to-door in St. Ambroise, Man., looking for leads in the death of 24-year-old Crystal Saunders, which occurred 12 years ago.

"When they're putting it out in public that they're going door-to-door, it's because the investigation is never closed," Ledrew said.

"The complexities of it may lead it to be unsolved for a while [but] it doesn't mean that it's not being worked on ... I think the families are kept more in the loop now about those things and that is such a good feeling for the families to know that the police are always looking and always investigating."

RCMP Cpl. Laura Ledrew says Project Devote officers are actively investigating 29 cases. A 30th has been solved. (Gary Solilak/CBC News)

Many of the inquiry's calls to action address concerns over the way police across Canada deal with these cases.

Most of the women and families who testified felt they were not taken seriously, or even that they were treated differently or treated with contempt or indifference by the police authorities because they are Indigenous.

One major recommendation that first came out of its 2017 interim report was for an independent national task force that would review and re-investigate unresolved cases and then share the findings with family.

"The government declined, at least so far, to form that task force," Chief Commissioner Marion Buller said Monday.

"There has been some information flow as a result of this work but really we're back at our interim report and that recommendation for the task force, not only to provide information but to re-investigate."

Among the inquiry report's other police-related recommendations:

  • Police forces should establish an independent, special investigation unit to look into failures to investigate, police misconduct, discriminatory practices and mistreatment of Indigenous people within their police service.

  • Police services should acknowledge a history of colonialism, racism, bias, discrimination and fundamental cultural and societal differences.

  • Police services should build respectful working relationships with Indigenous people.

  • Police services should standardize protocols for policies and practices so all cases are thoroughly investigated.

  • Governments should fund an increase in recruitment of Indigenous people to police services.

"We want action," Commissioner Michele Audette said.

"We have solutions in the report. We want it now. We want to work with you. I want to work with the police ... the justice system that is in place right now across Canada — it's not functioning, it's bitter and we know it. The women and families told us they don't want to go through that system. That has to stop."

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki apologized for the force's historic handling of MMIWG cases in 2018. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Last year, RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki addressed the inquiry and apologized to families.

"On behalf of myself and my organization, I am truly sorry for the loss of your loved ones and for the pain this has caused you, your families, and your communities. I'm sorry that for too many of you, the RCMP was not the police service you needed it to be during this terrible time in your life," Lucki said.

"It's very clear to me that the RCMP could have done better. I promise to you, we will do better."

On Monday, the RCMP issued a response to the inquiry report, saying it has already made many changes to its policies, procedures and training, including:

  • Establishing a national unit to provide expertise and oversight on major case investigations.

  • Updating policies and procedures for missing person and sudden death investigations to improve quality, oversight and communication with families.

  • Reviewing more than 30,000 sexual assault files across Canada.

  • Strengthening cultural awareness training for all employees, including at the RCMP Academy in Regina.

  • Expanding consultation and engagement with Indigenous leaders and elders.

Greater police accountability urged

Families of those still missing hope all of this will happen, but many are skeptical.

"I'd like to be hopeful, but we've seen you know, how many reports be produced and put on a shelf and dust collected?" said Bernadette Smith, the NDP MLA for Point Douglas and a long-time MMIWG advocate.

Her sister Claudette Osborne went missing on July 25, 2008. It took police officers 10 days to start investigating.

Smith agrees with recommendations demanding that Indigenous people be woven into all aspects of policing. She adds that there should be greater accountability when police fail to do their job.

"If you look at all of the reports that have been done on Indigenous people we know that there's issues with the police," Smith said.

"It's nothing new. But we need tangible actions to address the issue of violence against Indigenous women and not words, but actual action."

Bernadette Smith is an NDP MLA in Manitoba who was advocating on behalf of MMIWG for years before entering politics. Her sister Claudette Osborne went missing on July 25, 2008. (Gary Solilak/CBC News)

'How do you close this'

Janet Lowther still hears from a Project Devote police liaison officer about her sister's case, but said very little has changed. She told the officer to call less frequently.

Lowther now tells children in her community about her sister as a warning to look out for each other.

"We gave up. I gave up," she said, showing a tattoo on the inside of her arm that says 'No stone left unturned. Amanda Sophia Bartlett.' She got it on the 20th anniversary of Bartlett's disappearance.

"The sad thing is we don't even know what to do. Like, do we lay her to rest? And if we do, what do we lay to rest? How do you close this, how do you make things right for my mom, for my family, my sisters, my brother?"

"It's open-ended and that's where it's going to stay."