As It Happens

He's the former Ontario police board member who called for a missing, murdered women inquiry in '93

Philip Edwards is "surprised, pleased, and hopeful" in light of the announcement of a national public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Philip Edwards (right) called for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women after the murder of Sandra Kaye Johnson (left) (Family of Sandra Kaye Johnson/ Philip Edward)

Philip Edwards began calling for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women in 1993. He was in Thunder Bay at the time, and serving on the city's police services board. 

Edwards felt the murders and disappearances of indigenous women were not being taken seriously by the public at large, nor by the police. At the time, he told The Globe and Mail he wanted an inquiry because "we have to demonstrate to native people, one way or another, that police are doing their job." 

A Globe and Mail article from Nov. 27, 1993, about Philip Edwards' call for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. (The Globe and Mail )

As the years passed and no action was taken, Edwards began to lose hope that an inquiry would ever be called. He eventually left the country. 

He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off to reflect on the government's announcement to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Here is part of their conversation: 

Carol Off: What did you think when you heard the news that there is to be an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada?

Philip Edwards: I had heard that Justin Trudeau had made reference to it during his campaign, but I wasn't really enthused about that. But when he finally announced it, I was really very surprised, pleased, and hopeful that it will produce results.

CO: Why were you surprised? 
 I wasn't really convinced it was going to happen.- Philip Edwards

PE: Well, I suppose over the years, I've grown a little cynical about politics, when it comes to native people. I wasn't really convinced it was going to happen.

CO: Twenty-two years ago, why did you think that there should be an inquiry into what was happening to indigenous women in your region? 

PE: It appeared to be that there was an entrenched racism in the city, a systemic racism. It was fully my intention to draw attention to the murdered and missing young women [on the police services board.] The other factor was that the crimes were usually unsolved, or no one ever went to prison for the crimes. That's what drew me into it. They were murdered and just sort of forgotten. There was no one to speak out for them, or even their families. 

They were murdered and just sort of forgotten. There was no one to speak out for them.- Philip Edwards
CO: There's one particular person whose family you wanted to speak out for, a woman named Sandra Johnson who had been killed. Can you tell us that story?
Sandra Johnson, 18, was killed in Thunder Bay in 1992. Her murder remains unsolved. (Thunder Bay Police Cold Cases)

PE: She was the first girl to be murdered after I had been appointed. I heard in the morning that a body had been discovered, and I thought I better do my best to draw attention to it. It was winter, I got on my bicycle, cycled all the way across town to the coroner's office. I knew I wouldn't get in there, but I figured it would cause people to start talking about it. 

CO: The coverage at the time about you, you do come off as a bit of a troublemaker. The reaction you were getting from police and city hall was that you were wrong. Do you recall it that way?

PE: I knew that if I rubber-stamped whatever they wanted approved, nothing would change. It needed to get into the public consciousness, and it was my intention to be controversial. I think it sort of got the ball rolling, and that's what I wanted to do. I also wanted to challenge the authorities, and I think I accomplished that, at least. 

It seemed all my efforts had failed.- Philip Edwards
CO: You're not living in Canada anymore. Is that in part because of how frustrated you were about how little was being done about these issues?

PE: Yeah. I was in Vancouver, too, prior to Robert Pickton being arrested. I was on the street, talking to girls and advising them that it wasn't safe, and some of them were later murdered. It was really a dark time for me. I was very frustrated, on welfare, barely got money for food, and often no money for gas. It seemed like all of my efforts had failed. That's part of the reason I left the country. 

CO: Would you come back now? 

PE: I am really inspired now, by our new prime minister, and minister of justice. Even the minister for the status of women is from Thunder Bay. I know that facility, where she worked. I think wow, things are looking up. I have felt somewhat like an exile, a refugee in my own country. I am thinking about going back, but I have to think about where, and what I'm going to do. 

CO: I hope to see you back here, then. 

PE: Well, I'll look you up. I think this is not the last that you will have heard from me. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To hear the full interview please select the Listen audio link above.


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