Judy Peterson arranged to meet a pair of British Columbia RCMP officers on the side of the road halfway between Courtenay and Victoria. The police opened the back of their SUV, retrieved a DNA collection kit and pricked Ms. Peterson’s fingertip for blood.
The sample was transformed into a genetic profile and uploaded into the province’s DNA databank, where it was cross-checked with profiles culled from unidentified remains – a system unique to B.C. in Canada. There wasn’t a match: Ms. Peterson’s missing daughter, Lindsey, wasn’t among the remains stored at the B.C. Coroners Service facility.
But what Ms. Peterson still doesn’t know is whether Lindsey is among the hundreds of other unidentified remains across the country. Nor does she know whether her daughter’s DNA was found at a crime scene. That’s because Canada doesn’t have a national missing persons DNA databank – yet.
The Conservatives’ latest budget, tabled in February, pledged up to $8.1-million over five years starting in 2016-2017 to create a DNA-based national missing persons index (MPI). It’s what Ms. Peterson has been fighting for since about 2000.
“They say if you lose a child, it’s like you lose a limb, and you have to learn how to live and function in the world with part of you missing,” said Ms. Peterson, whose daughter disappeared at age 14 in August, 1993. “When you have a missing child, it’s like your limb has been crushed. Every time there’s a new lead or there’s something in the news, it’s as if that wound gets bumped and starts bleeding again.”
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, the lead minister on the file, told The Globe and Mail he will always remember the late Jim Flaherty delivering his final budget, looking up at Ms. Peterson in the House of Commons’ gallery and promising to create a national MPI. Calling the measure one of Mr. Flaherty’s legacy items, Mr. Blaney said he’s committed to tabling legislation by the end of 2015.
He said it’s “realistic” to foresee the government creating a national MPI and a national human remains index (HRI), both of which could be housed at the RCMP’s existing National DNA Data Bank facility in Ottawa. Mr. Blaney also said it’s within the realm of possibility to cross-reference those two indexes with two existing ones – the crime scene index (CSI) and the convicted offenders index (COI) – to search, for example, for missing people like Lindsey at known crime scenes.
The measure is in draft stage, he said, and it’s too soon to know exactly how it will unfold or what the consultation process will yield, including with regard to privacy. But now that the majority Conservatives have promised funding, the question doesn’t appear to be whether the measure will come to fruition, but rather what its scope and fine print will look like.
Decade in the making
The creation of a national MPI has been debated in Canada for more than a decade, championed by MPs of various stripes, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and mothers like Ms. Peterson and Melanie Alix, whose then-21-year-old son, Dylan Koshman, went missing in Edmonton, 2008. NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison said the budget measure is in principle a “good idea and could have positive results.”
But it has likewise elicited concern from the Criminal Lawyers’ Association and the federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner, which doesn’t object to a national missing-persons databank so long as it’s tightly secured and independent from the CSI and COI. Those two indexes collectively contain more than 350,000 profiles and have gleaned over 29,000 “hits” assisting investigations.
The Assembly of First Nations, which isn’t mandated to speak on the issue but has discussed it with relatives of some of the hundreds of missing aboriginal women, said some families cautiously support the measure but are wary of the government’s motives for acquiring and storing DNA.
There are untold missing people across the country, the number unknown since some cases go unreported and others are misrepresented in national data, in part due to repeat runaways. According to numbers released by the Canadian Police Information Centre in April, more than 60,000 missing adult, youth and children reports were filed last year.
At the same time, there are hundreds of unidentified remains in Canada. Ontario Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer said his office is aware of about 200, including a case dating back to 1964, while the acting manager of the B.C. Coroners Service Identification and Disaster Unit, Bill Inkster, said there are 188 there.
The two provinces, home to the highest number of missing persons reports last year, have different ways of handling remains deemed unlikely to be identified. Dr. Huyer said it’s standard practice to bury the remains but first preserve a tooth for possible DNA extraction. B.C., meantime, stores the entire dried skeleton in a cardboard box.