The inquiry into the murders and disappearances of more than a thousand Indigenous women lacks a badly needed focus on the failures of police forces across Canada, say victims’ families and advocates.
The National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was announced Wednesday in Ottawa. Its terms of reference include a mandate to to speak with communities and families affected by violence against Indigenous women and to recommend actions to remove systematic causes.
But at a joint media conference in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood, a coalition of advocates and family members said the inquiry’s terms of reference should include an explicit mandate to review the police response to crimes against Indigenous women.
“Our justice system needs to change,” said Lorelei Williams, who shared stories of violence and murder perpetrated against the women in her family, some of it mere blocks away in the nearby Downtown Eastside.
It was in that neighbourhood that serial killer Robert Pickton preyed upon marginalized women for more than a decade, many of them Indigenous.
Pickton was convicted in 2007 of murdering six women, but told an undercover officer in a jail cell he’d killed nearly 50.
‘The violence is still happening with our women’
For Williams, who now works with at-risk women in the Downtown Eastside, the need to include police actions in the inquiry’s mandate is deeply personal.
Williams’ aunt Belinda has been missing since 1978 and her cousin Tanya was last seen in 1996. Her DNA was later found on Pickton’s farm in suburban Port Coquitlam.
Another family member escaped after being raped by a suspected serial killer, and yet another was shoved out of a window, again in the Downtown Eastside, Williams told reporters.
When her cousin Tanya’s disappearance was reported to the Vancouver Police Department 20 years ago the file was closed within a month, and her aunt Belinda’s disappearance wasn’t “technically” accepted by police until 2004, Williams said — issues that she attributes to racism.
Since that time the VPD has made positive changes, but problems and attitudes rooted in racism and colonialism still result in police across Canada failing to protect Indigenous women, Williams said.
“You can hear families saying the same things over and over again,” she said. “Police are racist, judgmental, that’s what flawed the cases… The violence is still happening with our women.”
She said that police indifference and investigation and structural issues in the justice system also play a role.
Williams pointed to recent allegations that Quebec police abused Indigenous women and stories from a previous B.C. inquiry of women being violently thrown in the back of police wagons as further proof that police actions need to be specifically included in the inquiry’s terms of reference.
Separate police inquiry needed: prof
Annie Ross, associate professor of First Nations Studies at Simon Fraser University, said a separate inquiry into the way police deal with violence against Indigenous women should be considered -- partly because of how many cases she alleges were never fully investigated.
“I think there’s quite a lot with outstanding cases that need to be investigated properly for the first time,” Ross said. “Let’s investigate them.”
Ross said problems seem to occur within specific departments and even at specific times, raising questions about how much the attitudes of individual officers toward Indigenous communities play a role in police failures.
When a call to police is made, some departments can be dismissive if they know it’s an Indigenous person on the line, she said.
“How do dispatchers just know not to take cases?” she said. “Do they do that to everyone or just exclusively to Aboriginal women?”
The Vancouver police were accused for years of ignoring the women who disappeared from the desperate alleys and streets where Canada’s most marginalized people often end up.
Former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal lead an inquiry in 2010 into the actions of the police during the Pickton years. He found the police failed to protect women, but the inquiry was slammed by advocates as “deeply flawed.”
A better experience
Another family member at the press conference, Gertie Pierre, had kinder words for police actions.
Pierre’s niece Cheryl Ann Joe was brutally murdered in 1992 by Brian Allender in Vancouver, and Pierre said she was satisfied with the response of the VPD.
Police let her family know what was happening at every step of the investigation and never left them “in the dark,” Pierre said.
“We did an honouring ceremony at the friendship centre to honour everyone that was involved with putting this man away,” she said.
Pierre said she doesn’t know why her experience differs from those of others across the country. She feels for the many family members still hoping the killers of their loved ones will be brought to justice, she said.
In Ottawa on Wednesday, Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, told reporters the inquiry’s scope allows the role of police to be examined.
“The Terms of Reference direct the Commissioners first, to explore systemic and underlying causes of violence,” Bennett said. “Second, to examine institutional policies and practices designed to address violence against Indigenous women and girls.”
But Williams said she isn’t ready to trust that the government will get to the root of the missing and murdered women and girls in Canada, nor does she believe it will fix the problems.
Fixing them starts with ensuring the police will be put under the magnifying glass along with others, she said, and having that commitment in the inquiry’s mandate.
“The terms of reference has to explicitly include policing and police accountability,” she said. “This is very important to me because of what happened to my family.”