Politics

Police co-ordination still lacking a year after inquiry report on missing and murdered Indigenous women

The police response across Canada to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has been uneven and work to create national standards remains aspirational, according to a CBC News survey of law enforcement agencies. 

Some police services willing to contribute to a national task force to handle unresolved MMIWG cases

Lorelei Williams, whose cousin Tanya Holyk was murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton and aunt Belinda Williams went missing in 1978, pauses while responding to the report on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Vancouver on June 3, 2019. A CBC News survey of law enforcement agencies has found that in the year since the report was published, police responses to its findings have been uneven and work to create national standards remains aspirational.  (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The police response across Canada to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has been uneven, and work to create national policing standards remains aspirational, according to a CBC News survey of law enforcement agencies.

CBC News contacted police services from Victoria to Halifax and found there is still no uniform or co-ordinated approach to handling cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women one year after the release of the inquiry's report and recommendations.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the national policing organization asked by the inquiry to develop a national strategy by developing unified terminology and coding of cases, said improving the consistency of reporting by police agencies across the country and addressing gaps in data collection remains a goal.

"We must find a solution that is flexible enough to achieve our reporting goals without creating a labour-intensive process for our police teams," said a spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP). 

"The consultation process and analysis has begun and progress is being made."

The $92 million federally funded inquiry issued several recommendations aimed specifically at police, including a call to develop a national reporting strategy and to create a specialized team of investigators to take over unsolved murders and missing persons cases involving Indigenous women.

While all police forces contacted by CBC News have done some work to improve their relationships with local Indigenous communities and their handling of missing and murdered cases involving Indigenous women and girls, approaches vary from service to service — and some cover more ground than others.

Left to right, chief commissioner Marion Buller and commissioners Brian Eyolfson, Qajaq Robinson and Michele Audette prepare the final report to give to the government at the closing ceremony for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Gatineau on June 3, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Marion Buller, the former chair of the inquiry, said it's hard to accurately gauge the progress of police services since an annual progress report on the inquiry's recommendations hasn't been drafted.

"It's difficult to comment when there isn't that transparency and if there isn't that availability of information in a centralized location," Buller said.

"The Canadian chiefs of police might be doing extraordinarily progressive work and it's hard to know. Or maybe they're not, and it's still hard to know."

CACP is working with Statistics Canada — which publishes annual Homicide Survey reports data on homicides of Indigenous women and girls — to improve data collection. The organization said case information is being compiled by the Canadian Police Information Centre and the RCMP's National Centre for Missing Persons and Unified Remains database.

"Police services in Canada did not wait for the June 3, 2019 release of the National Inquiry report to undertake initiatives to achieve improvements in policies and procedures, including in the area of data collection, analysis and reporting," said a CACP spokesperson in an email to CBC News.

"To achieve timely progress, we are looking to build and expand on existing processes that have proven to be successful."

A red ribbon attached to an eagle feather is held up during ceremonies marking the release of the final report one year ago in Gatineau, Que. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

RCMP updates missing persons policies

The RCMP is consulting with the federal government to develop a national action plan to respond to the inquiry's recommendations and is working with various federal departments, Indigenous groups and advisory councils on next steps.

The RCMP said it has done work over the last several years that aligns with the inquiry's recommendations — establishing a National Office of Investigative Standards and Practices for major investigations, for example — and is consulting with Indigenous academics and advocates over how it handles cases and the cultural awareness training that is mandatory for all cadets.

In response to testimony from families during the inquiry, the RCMP said it now directs officers to only use mug shots of missing persons if no other image is available.

The RCMP now only uses mug shots of missing persons if no other image is available. (CBC)

When someone goes missing, RCMP officers must now fill out a detailed document with more categories to describe the person's ethnic origin and cultural affinity to ensure more uniformity in its investigations. The form has to be approved by a supervisor, who must be informed immediately when a missing person is considered "high-risk" or is someone whose lifestyle increases the risk of victimization.

RCMP officers must also now set a schedule with the family of a missing person to update them on the status of the investigation, based on the families' wishes.

Provincial police focus on improving relationships

The Ontario Provincial Police said it has formed a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Team to review the inquiry's final report and internally address its recommendations. The provincial police service said it's involved in consultations on creating a national strategy and it's already implemented some changes, such as more cultural awareness training and engagement with the Indigenous communities it serves.

The OPP also points to its ongoing work with the federally-created Family Liaison Unit to help families work through investigations and its partnership with Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service, which patrols 34 First Nations in the province, to increase awareness around human trafficking.

The inquiry recommended all police services develop and implement guidelines for policing the sex industry.

The Ontario Provincial Police has established a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Team to review the final report of the national inquiry and internally address its recommendations. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary said it wants to make sex work safer by supporting the regulation of the massage parlour industry, something that is being studied by the provincial government. 

Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial police says it is trying to "mend relationships" with sex workers by creating three liaison officers and a crime analyst to work with community groups and those involved in the industry. 

A working group has been created to review the inquiry's recommendations. 

The RNC said it now appoints a liaison to the victim's closest next of kin to provide regular updates on the status of the investigation.

The RNC also said it has also reached out to family members of cold case victims and is willing to provide case information to the national task force recommended by the inquiry, should it ever be created. 

The Sûreté du Québec has set up oversight committees in seven Indigenous communities to monitor its policing work. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The Sûreté du Québec (SQ) said it has worked with band councils to create oversight committees in seven Indigenous communities to monitor their policing work.

In 2019, members of the SQ met with representatives of various communities in Quebec to listen to their specific needs, such as better communication with victims and their families. In January of the same year, the SQ issued a reminder for staff to follow up with families in homicide investigations.

Last year, when the inquiry's final report was released, the SQ said it resolved four out of every five murder cases involving the homicides of Indigenous women.

Local police plan response

All local police services contacted by CBC News say they are reviewing the inquiry's recommendations, have introduced some form of diversity training and are making efforts to recruit more Indigenous police officers and improve communication with victims' families.

The Regina Police Service says it would be willing to share all of its unresolved case files on missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls to a national task force. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

The Edmonton Police service has hired an external consultant to review its current practices and policies, and the Greater Sudbury Police Service in Ontario said it has enacted or is working to implement all the police-related recommendations in the inquiry report, with the help of an Indigenous advisory committee.

Halifax police are reviewing the recommendations within the framework of the service's ten-year strategic plan. 

In Saskatoon, city police have more than doubled Indigenous recruits from 30 to 66 since 2002. Indigenous employees now make up 10 per cent of its organization.

The Montreal police service said it started the Iskweu Project in 2018, which is meant to help family members of missing Indigenous women get through the investigative process.

In Winnipeg, police are planning to introduce a stand-alone training course for officers and investigators. Winnipeg police report to their board on their work to support Indigenous women and girls every three months; they do not offer breakdowns on the missing and murdered Indigenous women caseload.

A woman embraces Robinson during ceremonies marking the release of the report in Gatineau. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In the absence of a national strategy to collect and share information, no one really knows how many Indigenous women and girls have been murdered or have gone missing in Canada.

Some estimates have suggested approximately 4,000 Indigenous women have been killed or have disappeared over the past few decades; the inquiry said the true number may never be known.

The latest data from Statistics Canada show nearly 37 per cent of female homicide victims in 2018 were Indigenous — an 11 per cent increase over 2014.

Need for outside body to investigate unresolved cases

Several police services, including Regina and Victoria, told CBC News they would be willing to work with the government on the creation of a task force by sharing investigative files.

Victoria Police also said it supports the creation of a nationwide emergency hotline for cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The inquiry said a special investigative task force is needed to rebuild trust between police agencies and families, given policing's many failures in handling cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

"One of the reasons we called for it and wanted it to have some independence from the existing forces is because the level of distrust, dissatisfaction and disharmony between families and those police forces," former commissioner Qajaq Robinson said.

"I'm pleased to hear there is work being done and there are issues being addressed, but those issues can't be ignored — the need for transparency and independence and accountability."

Lorraine Whitman, president of Native Women's Association of Canada, wonders whether there the political will exists to implement the recommendations from the national inquiry. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair's office wouldn't say whether it has any plans to create the task force.

Blair's office would only say it is continuing to review the recommendations with other ministers. 

"It is critical to have good data to measure the effectiveness of the steps we're taking, and to inform decisions taken going forward," said the emailed statement. 

Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), said she wonders whether the federal government's actions will match its words. 

NWAC plans to release a report card and action plan on Wednesday to mark the one year anniversary of the inquiry's final report.

"I haven't seen anything that would make me believe that they're going to be putting that (action plan) as a priority at all,"  Whitman said.

"I've been working and promoting and trying to empower for over 45 years, and we're still talking and discussing the same thing."

For immediate emotional assistance, call 1-844-413-6649. This is a national, toll-free 24/7 crisis call line providing support for anyone who requires emotional assistance related to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. 

You can also access long-term health support services such as mental health counselling and community-based cultural services through Indigenous Services Canada.

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

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