A First Nations woman from Saskatchewan whose daughter disappeared in 2007 is attempting to launch a class-action lawsuit against the RCMP on behalf of all families of murdered and missing Indigenous women, saying the force failed to adequately investigate the crimes.
The statement of claim, which was filed in Federal Court on Thursday, comes as a national inquiry continues to look into why the number of Indigenous women in Canada who fall victim to violence is so disproportionately high.
Diane BigEagle is claiming $500-million in general damages, and another $100-million in punitive damages, on behalf of all families of Indigenous women who have been murdered or been missing for more than 30 days and whose disappearance was reported to the RCMP.
The statement of claim alleges the force’s investigative decisions have been, and continue to be, plagued by overt and covert racism and discrimination. And, it says, the RCMP’s inadequate investigations mean criminals do not fear prosecution, which has increased the number of violent deaths among Indigenous women and girls.
Tony Merchant, the lawyer for Ms. BigEagle, said Thursday that the case is about the RCMP’s “failure to police as they are supposed to be policing” when the victims are Indigenous and female.
Mr. Merchant said he expects any judge who is asked to certify the suit as a class action may ask whether the failings of the RCMP should instead be assessed on a case-by-case basis. But Mr. Merchant said he hopes to establish, through statistical evidence, that there is a “commonality” of failings in these cases that warrants a class action.
Individually, Mr. Merchant said, none of the families of the missing and murdered women has the resources to take on the RCMP or the federal government over the inadequate handling of their loved one’s murder or disappearance. “But we believe we can succeed for them as a group.”
The RCMP said Thursday afternoon it had not had time to review the statement of claim and could not address any of the allegations contained within it.
A Statistics Canada report released last year said that Indigenous women in Canada are 2.7 times more likely to face violence than non-Indigenous women, and that the proportion of female murder victims who are Indigenous has increased from 9 per cent of all female homicide victims in 1980 to 24 per cent in 2015.
But a 2014 RCMP report also found that murders of Indigenous and non-Indigenous women were solved at about the same rate – just more than 80 per cent.
Ms. BigEagle’s daughter Danita, a 22-year-old mother of two, has been missing since February, 2007, and is presumed dead.
Ms. BigEagle says she contacted police quickly after Danita went missing, but they brushed her off with assurances that she would soon come home.
She estimates, in her statement of claim, that she has met with RCMP officers more than 50 times in the intervening years, often with the families of other murdered and missing Indigenous women. But, according to the statement of claim, “most of the time they [the police] did not write anything down and they did not seem to be paying attention to her.”
The statement of claim says families of victims have been subjected to unnecessary and preventable mental anguish as a result of the RCMP’s failures. It also says the RCMP tolerated racist attitudes that created stereotypical thinking that led to inadequate investigations.
Mr. Merchant said Ms. BigEagle was inspired to file the lawsuit after attending a hearing of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and being left with the impression that the commissioners are not interested in closely examining wrongdoing by police.
The inquiry spent five days in June holding hearings on police policies and practices, and said last year it would be reviewing the conduct of police officers. But it does not have the mandate to assign blame for a failed investigation or prosecution.