The BC Coroners Service is hoping its new interactive website displaying key information on cases of unidentified human remains in the province will be the start of a national effort to unravel such mysteries.
The site – dubbed a Canadian first by the service – was officially launched on Wednesday; a spokesman said they hope other provinces might join in on a similar cross-country system.
“One of the things we want to do is reach out to other jurisdictions to see if there is an opportunity to go national on this,” Andy Watson said in an interview.
He said chief B.C. coroner Lisa Lapointe confers with medical examiners and chief coroners from other provinces and hopes to bring this new concept to talks to see if there are opportunities for collaboration.
Mr. Watson said the only other similar program he knows of is the U.S. National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
British Columbia has developed an interactive web-mapping application offering information on about 200 cases in the province dating back to 1953 in which unidentified remains were found.
“These are obviously situations that we want to provide closure on because we know there is someone out there in close to 200 investigations, families looking for answers,” he said. “These are situations where we want to provide closure.”
The site offers the location of where remains were found, case numbers for contact purposes and a summary of the main information.
The viewer shows a map of British Columbia with markers that indicate a tragic mystery, and an invitation to contact the coroner services’ special-investigations unit with questions or information.
The entries are terse but with specific details: “Had US currency on him,” says the entry referring to a white man, aged 25 to 50, found in Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island in February, 1992.
A Whistler reference to a white male, aged 50 to 65, found in April, 2014, says the individual was wearing a hoodie from Steve and Berrys, “a US clothing retailer which went bankrupt in 2008 and never had any stores in Canada," according to the site’s details. Also, he had a receipt in his pocket dating from Nov. 14, 2013.
In particular, the Lower Mainland, the urban heart of the province, is a dense mass of blue dots – indicating males – and red dots, indicating females. There’s a green marker for unknown.
The designer of the system said the priority was to make it accessible, especially to older British Columbians who might recognize some of the older cases from the 1970s and 1980s.
Citing a hypothetical example, Ian Charlton wrote in an e-mail: “We want it to be accessible to 70-year-old Dorothy, who has lived in Kamloops all her life, and her granddaughter is visiting her, shows her the map and she recognizes one of the cases there from the ’70s based on the information given.”
Mr. Watson said unidentified remains lack the type of information that is otherwise available in most cases. In those, more routine situations, someone dies at home or in a workplace or other location that provides information on identity.
Things are more challenging with the cases cited in the new system. “Typically speaking, these are unwitnessed deaths. They may be deaths where bodies may be found after some time so being able to identify them is a challenge,” Mr. Watson said. “There are particular challenges when time elapses.”
In a typical year, Mr. Watson said the service has 11,000 deaths reported to it. About half would be non-natural deaths including accidents, suicide or homicide that can require investigation.
As of Wednesday, Mr. Watson said there had been 50,000 hits on the site. While it is in the media spotlight this week, Mr. Watson said the challenge ahead will be ensuring the public remains engaged. “It’s one tool in an array of tools that exist in society to try to provide closure,” he said.