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Cold comfort: Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women pin hopes on national police task force

John Fox sat outside of the Canadian Museum of History for the closing ceremony of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Fox wanted to share the story of the complications surrounding his daughter Cheyenne’s death, but he never got a chance to testify. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

As people poured into the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. a week ago to watch the closing ceremony of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, one father stood outside in the cold rain holding a sign bearing a hand-lettered message in black: “Where is our truth?”

For John Fox, no day goes by without a painful reminder of his daughter’s death. Cheyenne, a mom from the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ont., was just 20 when her lifeless body was found at the bottom of a Toronto high rise on April 25, 2013 after she fell from the 24th floor.

“My daughter was a very kind girl,” Fox said. “A very kind and caring girl and she loved her son.”

Toronto Police ruled out criminal activity in Cheyenne’s death. Her father has never accepted that conclusion.

“I want them to reopen that case and put it the way it is. She was murdered,” Fox said. 

“I think you need to re-look at the justice system in this country. That’s where the root problem is. The policing.”

The MMIWG inquiry was never meant to solve cold cases — but in its final report, the inquiry commissioners do offer a list of recommendations to improve investigation of crimes involving Indigenous victims and mend relations between investigators and Indigenous families.

Among other things, the report calls on the federal government to: bolster the ranks of Indigenous police forces; create civilian oversight bodies to oversee police; establish standardized response times for missing persons cases; improve communication between police and victims’ families; and establish a national police task force to review and, if required, re-investigate files of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

How would a national police task force work?

Of the report’s recommendations on policing, the idea of a national task force may be the most sweeping and ambitious. The federal government is not committing funding to the proposal at this point.

Some police organizations have decided not to wait for Ottawa’s direction to act.

The Ontario Provincial Police set up a unit specifically for investigating unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls before the national inquiry launched. Although it hasn’t solved any of the cold cases yet, it has re-opened a number of them.

“It’s so important to us to be able to provide whatever answers we can to those families and just to work with them and try and re-establish those relationships,” said OPP Chief Superintendent Mark Pritchard.

“Sadly, many families never have closure, but we still have to continue working on the cases, reopening the cases, listening to the families and trying to move them forward.”

She was a proud Indigenous human being. She was a proud mom. She had the kindest heart. She mattered, and somebody stole her from us.– Vanessa Brooks on the death of her sister Tanya

The RCMP also run a joint task force with the Winnipeg Police called Project Devote, set up in 2011 to deal exclusively with cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Some say that expanding the work of such regional units to the national level would present daunting challenges. Police working cold cases typically are left with only the evidence on file, which sometimes turns out to be unreliable. Dead ends are common.

“If the hope is that there’s going to be a host of new charges being laid and a host of convictions coming out of this, I suspect this is not going to be the case, and so families will be disappointed,” said Christian Leuprecht, a professor of political science at Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University who has written about the RCMP.

“If the objective is to go back and understand what went wrong and what we can do better going forward, than I think this will be a fruitful effort. Because what we will uncover is probably both procedural and substantive opportunities for improvement in … the attention cases receive and the way these cases are treated, the way evidence is collected and the way that evidence is then presented to the Crown.”

Families want regular updates

Family members of missing or slain Indigenous women and girls say they want someone in the law enforcement community to at least keep them in the loop.

“I’ve really lost trust in the system,” said Barbara Sevigny, whose sister, Mary Ann Birmingham, was killed on May 26, 1986 in Iqaluit.

“It would be nice for the families (to) not have to call in and say, ‘I would like an update.'”

Sevigny said RCMP only recently started to provide case updates to her family — 30 years after Birmingham’s death. 

birmingham family

From left to right: Barbara Sevigny embraces her mom, Sarah Birmingham and sister Elisapee Sheutiapik after the release of the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Gatineau, Que. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

“It kind of caught me off guard … I broke down because I was not expecting an update call just to say that, ‘We’re still working on your sister’s case.’ She hasn’t been forgotten. That they still have her picture up in front of their desk.”

Seivigny’s sister Elisapee Sheutiapik points to high police turnover in the North as one of the problems undermining murder and missing persons investigations. She said she would like to see the federal government offer reliable funding of police services in the territories and address underlying issues, such as a chronic lack of housing and trauma counselling.

“Such tragedy,” she said. “We often wonder, what would she be if she were alive? I think she’s really created who we are as a family.”

Their mother, Sarah Birmingham, shared her story for the first time at a national inquiry public hearing. For Sarah’s daughters, nothing matters more now than giving their mother a long-delayed sense of justice.

“I want her to have … closure,” Sevigny said. “She’s been waiting 33 years and she’s been waiting for closure.”

tanya brooks

Tanya Brooks smiles in an undated photo. (Vanessa Brooks/Supplied)

After Tanya Brooks of Millbrook First Nation, N.S., was killed in Halifax on May 11, 2009, CrimeStoppers issued a $150,000 reward for information leading to a suspect — the first reward of its kind issued in the province. Ten years later, her case hasn’t seen much progress.

“My sister was a very beautiful human being,” said Tanya’s sister Vanessa Brooks. “She was a proud Indigenous human being. She was a proud mom. She had the kindest heart. She mattered, and somebody stole her from us.”

The inquiry’s recommendations, she said — particularly the call for a national task force — are giving her a renewed sense of hope that her sister’s killer can at least be identified someday. She said she also wants to see Canadian police services undergo cultural sensitivity training and appoint Indigenous women to a liaison unit to help police work with victims’ families.

“I’m encouraged and optimistic,” Brooks said. “I’m more optimistic with the task force. I think it’s absolutely essential that we have it.”

For the families left behind, progress often comes in small doses. After years of fighting, Fox finally got his daughter’s death reclassified as ‘undetermined’ — something he wishes he hadn’t been forced to fight for in the first place.

“We need justice for these women.”

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