'No foul play' found in deaths of dozens of Indigenous women, but questions remain

In dozens of cases where police say there is no evidence of foul play, the families of missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women maintain their loved ones may have been victims of homicide, a CBC News investigation has found.

CBC investigation finds suspicious circumstances in deaths ruled accidental or suicidal

CBC News investigated 34 cases where authorities deemed there was 'no foul play' and found instances of suspicious circumstances and unexplained injuries. (CBC)

In dozens of cases where police say there is no evidence of foul play, the families of missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women maintain their loved ones may have been victims of homicide, a CBC News investigation has found.

Despite official rulings of suicide or accidental death, CBC News has found evidence in some cases of unexplained injuries, suspicious circumstances, failure to interview key witnesses and persons of interest who have never been convicted.

An analysis of 32 deaths and two disappearances of Indigenous girls and women across Canada, where authorities ruled there was no foul play, reveals the following:

  • Ten had unexplained injuries, though officials maintained those injuries did not contribute to the deaths.
  • Seventeen were involved in domestic and family violence, where families insist there was a clear suspect.
  • Six were found nude or partially clothed in suspicious or anomalous circumstances.
  • In 31 of the cases, a person of interest was identified at some stage either by police or family members, but ultimately, no one was judged responsible for the death.
  • In five of the cases, coroner's or inquest findings and police determinations appear to be in conflict with each other.

In 25 of the 34 cases, families say they felt racism and assumptions about the women and their lifestyles hampered the investigation.

"Those cases should be reopened and investigated," said Gail Gallagher, senior manager of violence prevention with the Native Women's Association of Canada.

Gail Gallagher, senior manager of violence prevention with the Native Women's Association of Canada, says the unresolved cases need to be addressed by the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

"There should be a creation of an independent civilian body that is able to look at these cases."

Gallagher said it's important these kinds of cases be considered in the upcoming national inquiry.

"It leaves the families with no answers and a lot of unresolved grief. They're still grieving because they have no resolution," she said.

Minister finds these cases 'troubling'

"I think that police forces need to have a look at what you uncovered and discovered and that they need to really have a look at their processes," said Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. 

She called the collection of cases CBC gathered "troubling."

"I think it is a teachable moment for policing across this country, to really look at the kinds of assumptions that are being made, the kinds of decisions that are being taken based on assumptions, instead of based on fact," said Bennett.

CBC asked Bennett whether cases like these would be included in the upcoming federal inquiry.

"I think that patterns of cases as you've identified now where something is deemed not to be no foul play, are certainly worthy of an assessment but again it will be up to the commissioners to determine how they do their work."

Carolyn Bennett on CBC's MMIW investigation

7 years ago
Duration 0:50
Carolyn Bennett, minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, reacts to CBC's investigation, Unresolved: Case Closed or Murder? Read more:

Strained relationships

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, vice-provost of Aboriginal initiatives at Lakehead University, said relationships between Indigenous people of Canada and police forces have been strained for years. Sometimes it results in a dismissive attitude on the part of some officers, but in other cases it can go further.

"I would say it's probably sloppy police work in some instances," she said.

"I think that there have been some police officers that have come forward and said, 'I am aware that some of these cases were not handled properly.'"

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, vice-provost of Aboriginal initiatives at Lakehead University, believes sloppy police work is to blame for some unresolved cases. (CBC)

Clive Weighill, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, agreed.

"I would never discount what the families have had happen to them in the past," he said.

"For sure some investigations haven't been done properly. Lots of investigations have been done very well."

Weighill said he believes the cases where families dispute official findings of "no foul play" should be part of the upcoming inquiry.

Still, he said, he can't be sure all families will find closure.

Clive Weighill, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, acknowledges that some investigations have not been done properly. (CBC)

"We can review the file, we can review witnesses if there has to be some further investigation done on it. We can share with the family what we've done on the file," he said.

"We can only move forward from here, and try to rectify anything that's happened with the family before."

Below are some of the specific findings of the CBC investigation.

Patricia Carpenter, 14, was found dead on a Toronto construction site on Sept. 25, 1992. 

The body of Patricia Carpenter, 14, was found wedged head-first into a hole on a construction site. Toronto police determined there was no foul play in connection with her death.

She was discovered by workers with her feet sticking out of a hole 55 centimetres by 58 centimetres in size and almost two metres deep. Her body was wedged in head-first.

The Ontario coroner's documents show a Toronto police officer stated no foul play was suspected early on. Although an autopsy found no foul play, the coroner ordered an inquest. That report found her death to be suspicious.

The coroner's jury that reviewed the case reported it did not have sufficient evidence to declare Carpenter's death a homicide. Her mother, Joyce Carpenter, said she felt police determined there was no foul play in her daughter's death prematurely and that a lack of investigation hampered the case.

"She is one of the many, many, many girls that is not included in the missing and murdered Indigenous thing that is going on, because they wrote her off," she said.

Tanya Hill, 28, was found dead in her Hamilton apartment on March 5, 2011, after a party.

Tanya Hill, 28, was found to have died of acute alcohol poisoning by the Ontario coroner. The autopsy revealed signs of trauma.

The Ontario Coroner's Office determined that Hill died from acute alcohol poisoning, but mentioned in the report that her reportedly abusive partner came to the Hamilton police station and appeared to be "confessing" to her murder. He was never charged.

Her body showed signs of trauma, according to the autopsy report on her death, and her family was so concerned about the quality of the police investigation that they hired a photographer to take photos of the scene. They show blood on the floor, a bloodied telephone cord and Hill's hair embedded into a wall.

Hamilton police confirmed they are not conducting a criminal investigation and would not share any further information. The coroner's office also refused to answer any questions about the case.

Nadine Machiskinic, 29, was found badly injured at the bottom of a Delta Hotel laundry chute in downtown Regina on Jan. 10, 2015. The mother of four died in hospital later that day. 

Regina police admit errors in their investigation of the death of Nadine Machiskinic, 29 and have apologized to her family.

​Her family believes she may have been a victim of foul play on the hotel's 10th floor and that the investigation into her death was lacklustre and filled with errors.

Regina police acknowledge they waited a full year before attempting to track down two men who got on the elevator with Machiskinic just minutes before she fell down the chute. Documents obtained by CBC reveal police were not notified by the Saskatchewan coroner until 60 hours after Nadine's death. They started the investigation right away after being notified but failed to send toxicology samples to the coroner for six months. The Saskatchewan coroner found her death accidental and cited drug toxicity as a significant contributing factor.

Regina police admit the error and apologized to Machiskinic's family, but said the case is closed. It could be reopened if new information comes forward.

"This whole investigation wasn't dealt with urgency or importance," said her aunt, Delores Stevenson.

"The hours after her death should have been the most crucial part of the investigation, but that wasn't the case for her."

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  • An earlier version of this story said Regina police waited 60 hours before starting the investigation. The police started the investigation as soon as they were notified by the Saskatchewan coroner, which was 60 hours after Nadine's death.
    Jun 28, 2016 9:31 AM CT

With files from Kristy Hoffman, Katie Pedersen, Angela Sterritt and Geoff Leo