POLITICS

Privacy concerns slow efforts to trace missing, murdered aboriginal women

08/22/2012 04:29 EDT | Updated 10/22/2012 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - A national aboriginal women's group has shared data with the RCMP on more than 100 unsolved cases of missing or murdered women and girls, but privacy concerns have delayed further co-operation.

The Native Women's Association of Canada has vigorously pursued the issue of aboriginal women who have met with a violent fate or simply disappeared, compiling a database of 582 cases through the Sisters in Spirit initiative.

The association began working with the RCMP's National Aboriginal Policing Services branch in 2009 and provided the Mounties with names from its database in cases where there was little information to go on.

The list of 118 names included 60 murdered women or girls, three who went missing and 55 others whose status was unknown, RCMP briefing notes released under the Access to Information Act indicate.

Of these, 64 turned up on a police database, while the other 54 could not be located in computerized listings. The Mounties asked for additional details such as date of birth, location and date of the incident, but there was no further information available, the briefing notes say.

Still, the initial project prompted the RCMP to ask the native women's association for all 582 names to see if any others could be found in police files.

However, the native women's association said it could not hand the information over to the Mounties because of confidentiality guarantees given to family members who provided much of the data in the first place.

The "intent is there" to collaborate further with the RCMP, said Claudette Dumont-Smith, executive director of the association.

"It's a very sensitive issue," Dumont-Smith said. "The families were promised when we started that research that everything would be kept very confidential and we wouldn't release it. So there's a lot of steps that we have to follow before we open up our database with the RCMP."

The Mounties are working with the association on a memorandum of understanding to allow for the "reconciliation of outstanding cases" and to support additional data collection for the unsolved files, the police force said in a written response to questions.

But any memorandum will need the blessing of the association's board of directors to "see if it fits in with our mandate," Dumont-Smith said.

The negotiations are just one element of ongoing efforts to solve missing persons cases in the aboriginal community and beyond.

The RCMP has helped develop an educational kit, "Navigating the Missing Persons Process," for use by concerned family and friends.

In 2010 the police force received $10 million over five years to create a national database that includes all missing persons and unidentified human remains cases.

The first step was a slate of changes to the Canadian Police Information Centre, the commonly used national police tool known as CPIC, to allow investigators across the country to enter more information about missing persons cases.

The new national database, to be ready next year, will draw on the fresh CPIC data to help police, coroners and medical examiners better investigate files, said RCMP Insp. Carole Bird, responsible for the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains.

"We're hoping it's going to be very significant," Bird said. "We'll be bringing more tools to the frontline investigators to help them resolve these cases."

The database will allow for cross-matching "to see if we can link some of these cases together," she added. "Part of it will be automatic, part of it will be analysis by specialists."

Legal barriers mean the database will not include actual DNA samples, as some had hoped, but it will indicate whether a DNA sample of human remains is available for comparison, Bird said.

The RCMP has developed "best practices" for missing persons cases and is working on advanced training.

This year, the Mounties also plan to debut a public website featuring searchable data that's aimed at generating tips from the public on missing persons cases.

"Every case is completely different, and they're extremely complex cases to do," Bird said.

The hope is that each of the new components — the national database, the public website and better training — will have a positive effect, she added.

"Exactly how big an impact it will have, we don't know yet."