Canada could be doing more for MMIW, international expert says

Luis Fondebrider, an investigator from Argentina, says solving the cases of hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women should not be so difficult in a 'rich' country like Canada. 'These are stories we normally hear about in Africa and Latin America, not in rich countries like this.'

Luis Fondebrider baffled that 'rich country' can't make co-ordinated efforts to solve cases

Luis Fondebrider, from Argentina, is part of an international team of over sixty scientists and archeologists who dig, examine and reconcile human remains for families. (Supplied)

Solving the cases of hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women should not be so difficult in "rich" countries such as Canada, says a forensic anthropologist from Argentina who's a member of an international team of investigators.

"I have to remind myself I'm in Canada, these are stories we normally hear about in Africa and Latin America, not in rich countries like this, " says Luis Fondebrider.

Fondebrider is among the team of 60 scientists and archeologists who dig, examine and reconcile human remains for families.

Three decades ago, he formed the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), a non- profit scientific organization. Over the last 10 years, EAAF has also looked into cases of women who have died in places like Ciudad Juarez, where the killings of hundreds of women has its own term -- "femicide".

CBC continues to investigate the stories of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls by exploring the stories of these women, their families and their communities.

"I want to show how these kinds of cases are different than a criminal case. When a specific group is targeted, we need an entirely different approach."

That approach involves multiple stakeholders, not just homicide investigators.

Family members, for example, have played key roles in the tens of thousands of cases Fondebrider has investigated, and solved in some instances. He also says political will and a government with a human rights agenda are crucial.

National DNA bank essential

Fondebrider emphasizes the need for a national missing person's DNA bank. Canada has a DNA databank in the process and it is expected to be fully implemented by 2017.

Dawn Harvard, interim head of the Native Women's Association of Canada, says a DNA bank and more public awareness could help families in Canada. She was shocked to hear that in Argentina, where a DNA bank is in place, investigators examine about 9,000 samples in six months.

"I was surprised to hear how easy it was. You think, 'Why are we getting so much pushback here in Canada?' Many family members live their lives forever searching — every girl on the street, every page on Facebook — hoping to catch a glimpse that she is out there."

Harvard says Canada has the resources and technology to take on a genetic database, but governments are dragging their feet, and families just can't wait another two years for answers.

Waiting decades for answers

Sequin Leyden has been searching for her mother, Helene Louise Leyden (née Ratfat), for over 30 years. The woman, from the Mikisew Cree Nation in northern Alberta, disappeared in 1971. A missing person's report was not filed at that time.

Helene Leyden (née Ratfat), from the Mikisew Cree Nation in northern Alberta disappeared in 1971. (Supplied)
But in 2014, at a Sisters in Spirit march in Edmonton, a female RMCP member offered help. Shortly after, 
Shortly after, RCMP collected DNA samples from Leyden and her sister.

Leyden says it was a major relief simply knowing there might be answers. Her only hope now is that before she dies, she will know what happened to her mom.

"It's been hard to have no closure, nothing. We get trickles of info in, but if there was any way for us to know more, if they exhumed bones and bodies to match with our DNA, maybe we could have more answers."

In 2014, Ottawa committed $8 million to create a DNA-based Missing Persons Index to start up by 2016-2017.

But critics worry about the success of the DNA bank because local jurisdictions will still have to foot the bill.

Political will crucial, says Fondebrider

When Argentina decided to create its own genetic data bank in 2006, a public campaign was broadcast on television and radio that asked families to give blood samples. Famous artists supported the campaign, and there were pamphlets and a 1-800 number. 

Fondebrider calls it a huge public campaign that worked — there was a shift in the number of cases investigated and solved.

But he says part of the problem in Canada might be not just a lack political will, but also a lack of co-ordination.

Fondebrider says that in many countries, individual states or provinces are working on their own, without a national co-ordination strategy.

Sequin Leyden knows of this all too well.

Two provinces are now trying to decide whose jurisdiction her mom's investigation would fall under. So Leyden painstakingly sends documents, photographs and information about her mother to two separate addresses – one to Alberta and one to British Columbia.

"You need the help of the entire society -- government, families, human rights groups," says Fondebrider. "Many didn't trust the official system, so we developed a new system – one that people were comfortable with. When there was a new government and human rights was on the top of the political agenda, we got more support to develop this."

But he still finds the Canadian situation baffling.

"Canada is a rich country -- in my country we are looking for 30,000 disappeared people. The numbers in Canada are a small number of people, and in terms of money, its almost nothing."

CBC reporter Angela Sterritt was given access to interview forensic anthropologist Luis Fondebrider by the Globe and Mail, which brought Fondebrider to Canada as part of its ongoing investigation into missing and murdered indigenous women.


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.