A newly struck working group with representatives of sex workers and the South Asian and LGBTQ communities now has the job of drawing up rules for an external review of how Toronto police have handled missing-persons investigations.
A motion passed at the Toronto Police Services Board on Wednesday empowers the review, which is expected to be led by a sitting judge, to determine whether “systemic concerns” such as police bias could be an issue in missing-persons investigations.
“This, I think, is an important first step in addressing something that think has been searing for the entire community,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said after the board voted to approve the working group. While he admitted that the panel, and the eventual review, would be “limited in what we can proceed with,” he nevertheless said he was encouraged by the fact that it reflects the communities that have been most affected.
The Toronto Police Services Board voted in March to order the external review amid a chorus of calls from the LGBTQ community, frustrated with a perceived failure in how police handle missing-persons cases, especially those of men who disappeared from the Gay Village. Those calls have only grown louder since January, when police arrested Bruce McArthur, who now faces eight first-degree murder charges in connection with the deaths of some of the missing men.
On Wednesday, the police board announced it had selected Shakir Rahim, a board member of the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP); Monica Forrester, program co-ordinator at the Toronto Sex Workers Action Project; Sara Mainville, a partner at Olthuis Kleer Townshend law firm; and Ken Jeffers, a member of the police services board.
ASAAP has been one of the most vocal groups questioning how police handled the disappearances of the men from the Gay Village, especially because most were of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent. Ms. Forrester is herself transgender and was a friend of Dean Lisowick, an alleged victim of Mr. McArthur who also worked in the sex trade.
“Given the link between recent missing person cases and the LGBTQ2S+ South Asian and Middle Eastern communities, it is important that the voices of our communities are strongly heard,” reads a statement from ASAAP welcoming the decision to appoint Mr. Rahim to the working group.
The working group is tasked with drawing up the terms of reference for the probe, specifically directing how it will assess Toronto police rules, policies and procedures for missing-persons cases, as well as its sensitivity to communities that are often the most marginalized.
The review will not be permitted to delve into the specifics of the McArthur investigation or any matter before the courts.
Apart from the murders that police have attributed to Mr. McArthur, the LGBTQ community also wants to know whether police took the disappearances of two women seriously enough.
Tess Richey went missing from near Church and Wellesley Streets last November. Her body was found four days later in an outdoor stairwell, not by police, but by her mother, who had travelled to Toronto to look for her daughter. Police have charged Kalen Schlatter, who was seen with Ms. Richey the night of her death, with first-degree murder.
Just a day after Ms. Richey’s body was found, police announced that they had identified a transgender woman found dead in a Toronto ravine in August as Alloura Wells, who had been missing since July. Her death remains unexplained.
When the board met in March, there was support for the external review from Mr. Tory and Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders, as well as several representatives of the LGBTQ community. However, some remained skeptical that another report would solve the issue. Police services across Canada have embarked on similar reviews − most notably after the arrest of Robert Pickton for a series of murders on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The community groups that did voice support for the external review have also called for a larger public inquiry into the missing men and the investigation after Mr. McArthur’s trial.