In the seemingly ceaseless tragedy of murdered indigenous women, the country has been left with one crystal-clear impression: the overwhelming majority of those women were in some sort of relationship with their killers.
This is not true.
A Torstar News Service analysis suggests 44 per cent of the women were victims of acquaintances, strangers and serial killers. This finding is based on a Star review of publicly available information on more than 750 murder cases. Of that number, 224 murders remain unsolved.
There are many public lists of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. Torstar compiled those lists into a single database then set out to verify as much information as possible. Relying on newspaper clippings and court documents, the Star’s database includes 1,129 names, dates and, when a case was solved, some information on the offenders.
Our review found 420 cases where details of the relationship between victim and offender were known. Some of them date to the 1960s. Of those:
- Half of the victims were domestically related to the perpetrator. This includes all types of family and partner connections.
- 16 per cent of the offenders were acquaintances; 15 per cent were strangers; and 13 per cent serial killers.
Aboriginal leaders who reviewed the Star’s findings say they show that the killers cannot be easily profiled and that reasons why indigenous women make up a disproportionately high percentage of homicide victims are not so neatly diagnosed.
Torstar also obtained details through an access-to-information request to suggest the “solved” rate is not as clear-cut as the public RCMP report into missing and murdered indigenous women suggests.
In two reports, the Mounties said the “known-to” category includes spouses, family members and acquaintances. The latter category can mean “close friends, neighbours, authority figures, business relationships, criminal relationships and casual acquaintances.”
What is a casual acquaintance? A friend of a friend or someone met online? In how many cases did the victim know the perpetrator only briefly, meeting them only once?
The RCMP will not say.
From the start, Alberta’s Cold Lake First Nation Chief Bernice Martial has not believed most indigenous women knew their killers and that they were mostly indigenous men: “I want the facts. I want the data. I want to see proof.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde wants the definition of “known to” clarified.
“It could be the corner store grocery man, or whoever brings milk to the door. It doesn’t necessarily mean the boyfriend,” Bellegarde says.
“You need to break this down further and define it. The way you looked at it, only 50 per cent are in relationships. If the RCMP said it was 90 per cent — well, there is a discrepancy already. It is alarming — the transparency and openness.”
In April, then aboriginal affairs minister Bernard Valcourt told First Nations chiefs that, in 70 per cent of the cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women, indigenous men had been the perpetrators.
“The notion of First Nations women only being killed by their boyfriends and spouses is a myth,” said Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 northern Ontario First Nations.
Carolyn Bennett, the new indigenous and northern affairs minister, said she was “appalled” by Valcourt’s remarks.
“It was misleading for him to characterize it that way and I, at the time, was furious,” Bennett said.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson confirmed the number citing their database — even though the report issued by the Mounties last year had not noted the ethnicity of perpetrators. But Paulson added a caveat.
“It is not the ethnicity of the offender that is relevant, but rather the relationship between the victim and offender that guides our focus with respect to prevention,” Paulson wrote to Martial.
Most homicides involving female victims of all ethnicities involve family or intimate partner violence, Paulson added, but the rate is actually lower for aboriginal women — 62 per cent compared to 74 per cent for non-aboriginal women.
In its follow-up report, the RCMP said in the past couple of years, the offender was known to the victim in every solved homicide of an aboriginal woman in RCMP jurisdictions.
Since the RCMP found that aboriginal women are significantly more likely than other women to be killed by an acquaintance — 17 per cent of the aboriginal female homicides involved casual acquaintances and 7 per cent criminal relationships — uncertainty surrounds hundreds of cases.
“You need to break this down further and define it,” said Bellegarde.
Are police forces working together, asks Bellegarde, by sharing correct information? And are there protocols to improve communications?
“This all speaks to the bigger realm of why there needs to be an inquiry coupled with an action plan,” he said.
Bennett, one of the ministers charged with establishing the national inquiry, said cases that involve family violence should be viewed through a wider lens.
“We’ve got to go way back upstream to actually look at the effects of colonization and residential schools on the indigenous population in Canada,” Bennett said.
Secrecy and the list
Torstar shared its database findings with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police two months ago and on two occasions since to check the accuracy of its research. Torstar also asked several questions about how the RCMP arrived at its findings.
In May 2014, the Star made an access to information request for the RCMP’s database of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls.
In early October 2015, some 16 months later, the RCMP released 2,000 pages related to work that led to its 2014 report. All names and personal details of the women and girls were redacted.
The RCMP cited several reasons for redacting information, including personal information, law enforcement investigations and information obtained in confidence. Their 2014 report notes that the Mounties were asked to sign an “Undertaking of Confidentiality” to obtain data from Statistics Canada and that other police services had to agree that Statistics Canada could share their data.
On Nov. 13, after more questions from Torstar, Janice Armstrong, deputy commissioner of RCMP aboriginal policing, welcomed media efforts to investigate, saying the cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women require “a co-ordinated response that addresses the underlying root causes of violence.”
Yet none of our questions was answered. The RCMP database — notwithstanding the RCMP’s already published interpretations of it — remains a secret.
Seeking clarity on a local level presented its own challenges. On Aug. 13, the Star contacted the Winnipeg Police Service requesting an interview with Project Devote, an integrated task force between the RCMP and Winnipeg police charged with the investigation of unsolved homicides and missing persons in Manitoba involving exploited and “at risk” persons. Ethnicity and gender are not predetermining factors for inclusion.
Across a period of more than three months, two trips to Winnipeg and repeated communications, including with the RCMP, Winnipeg police denied the request on Nov. 20. On that date, Winnipeg police did send a list of cases under investigation, but would not indicate which cases involved indigenous persons. Of a current case load of 28, including one male, the Star’s own research found 22 cases involving missing and murdered indigenous women. The number could be higher.
The lack of co-operation highlights the barriers to capturing accurately the necessary data. Asked how many members of Project Devote are indigenous, Winnipeg police responded via email that the “heritage of the investigators on the task force is irrelevant.”
The Ontario Provincial Police were also reluctant to answer questions about the deaths and disappearance of women in northern Ontario.
Police secrecy masks the scope of the problem, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.
“What is the scope of the problem?” asks Fiddler. “There is really no definitive picture. If there was a collaborative effort we could get an accurate picture. There is no databank somewhere, no central place where you can find some answers. There is no co-ordinated effort. We know the Ontario Provincial Police has numbers, the RCMP has numbers and even the Native Women’s Association of Canada has numbers,” said Fiddler.
No one can answer simple questions: What is the status of these investigations? Which force is handling the investigations — the RCMP, the OPP or the Thunder Bay Police? Are they actively investigating these cases?
As of November, the Star’s research had identified 1,129 cases where an indigenous woman or girl was either murdered, died in suspicious circumstances, or is missing. It is by no means a complete list. In some cases, the Star could not verify details. For those reasons, Torstar is sharing an aggregate level analysis of the cases.
In 130 cases — 78 of which were from British Columbia — Torstar could not find information to verify the type of case (murdered or missing), nor any information to exclude them. Of the total, 937 cases are from 1980 to 2015. Looking at the solve rates of homicides, the annual ratio of unsolved to solved cases was higher during the 1980s and 1990s, and is gradually decreasing.
Overall, there are 768 murder cases with 20 identified as murder-suicides. Two hundred and twenty-four are unsolved and, of those, 186 involve killings since 1980.
Torstar can’t verify the RCMP’s claim that 88 per cent of all aboriginal female homicide cases have been solved. The Torstar analysis suggests a solve rate of 70 per cent.
Torstar analysis also identified 180 unsolved cases between 1980 and 2012; the RCMP cited 120 cases.
The Mounties provided no explanations for the discrepancies.
The RCMP data came from police-reported figures from more than 300 different agencies. The Star analysis is based largely on media reports.
In her letter to Torstar, Janice Armstrong, deputy commissioner of RCMP aboriginal policing, said commenting on the discrepancies would be “inappropriate,” citing differences in methodology and data sets.
A possible explanation can be found in the fine print of the 2014 RCMP report, which says solved cases include those where the suspect was “chargeable” but not charged. In other words, the police recommended the prosecutor lay charges but a charge may not have been laid.
How many homicide cases stalled with no one charged, tried or sent to jail? The RCMP will not say.
The phrase “suspect chargeable” appeared throughout the heavily censored 2,000-page document Torstar obtained from the RCMP.
Should police lump such cases into the same category as those that came with convictions and certainty for the families of victims?
“When you take that strict interpretation of solved — that becomes an issue unto itself. This does not bring any peace to the family, if they are charged and not convicted. Basically, when they do that, there is no justice or healing or closure for the family. The family’s pain and hurt is still ongoing. . . . That has to be reviewed,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.
Behind the numbers
There are many public lists of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada, some more detailed than others. The Star compiled a single database from those lists and then went about verifying as much of the information as possible.
Five Star journalists and two Star librarians searched and read through thousands of news stories, obituaries and online legal documents to check the status of cases.
New cases were added and some were removed after the research revealed, for example, that a missing woman had been found or that a murdered woman was not indigenous.
At time of publication, the Star’s research had identified 1,129 cases where an indigenous woman or girl was either murdered, died in suspicious circumstances, or is missing.
It is by no means a complete list. In some cases, the Star could not verify details. For those reasons, the Star is choosing to share an aggregate level analysis of the cases.
Star reporters David Bruser, Jim Rankin, Joanna Smith, Tanya Talaga and Jennifer Wells; librarians Astrid Lange and Rick Sznajder; database specialist Andrew Bailey; and demographic experts Hidy Ng and Matthew Cole were involved in the research and analysis.
Caveats, data at a glance
In 130 cases — 78 of which were from British Columbia — Torstar could not find information to verify the type of case (murdered vs. missing), nor could the Star find any information to exclude them.
Of the 1,129 cases, 937 are from 1980 to 2015. Looking at solve rates for homicides, the ratio of unsolved to solved cases, by year, was higher in the 80s and 90s, and is decreasing graduallly.
Overall, there are 768 murder cases, of which 20 were identified as murder/suicides. Of the murders, 224 are unsolved, with 186 of those cases involving killings since 1980.
Solved totals in the Torstar analysis do not include cases where an accused was acquitted, but they do count cases where an arrest has been made and a trial is pending, or in instances where an accused has died. The Star also included as solved cases where the outcome was unclear, such as a case where there was a trial but the outcome could not be determined.
There are 171 missing women and girls in the Torstar database, which is nearly identical to RCMP figures from 2014, which tallied 164 missing cases, dating back to the 50s.
Between 1980 and 2012, the solved rate in the cases of murdered indigenous women compiled by the Star is 70 per cent, which is much lower than the 88 per cent solve rate the RCMP reported in its groundbreaking 2014 report for the same time frame. The RCMP report cited a solve rate for non-aboriginal female homicides to be 89 per cent, based on an analysis of Canada-wide homicides from 1980 to 2012.
The ratio of unsolved to solved murders is decreasing. Murders of aboriginal women and girls peaked in 2005.
Another difference between the Star research and RCMP findings is the number of unsolved cases. The Star analysis identified 180 cases between 1980 and 2012. The RCMP cited 120 cases for that same time period.
It is unclear why there are such large differences. The RCMP data came from police-reported figures from more than 300 agencies. The Star analysis is based largely on media reports.
Torstar shared a findings package with the RCMP and flagged the differences in letters to Commissioner Bob Paulson.
In a letter to the Star, RCMP Deputy Commissioner Janice Armstrong cited the differences in source material as a factor and wrote that it would therefore be “inappropriate” to comment on the differences.
The RCMP did not answer a long list of questions posed by Torstar.
Armstrong, in her letter to Torstar, said the RCMP welcomes “actions that result in positive outcomes in the lives of Aboriginal women and girls” and expressed appreciation that the Star conducted an independent investigation that can “further raise awareness among the public as to the reality of this tragedy. We commend your efforts in this endeavor.”
Unless stated otherwise, figures for murdered and missing indigenous women in Gone are for all years.
Edit: Link to their analysis (PDF)
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