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Recap: Q&A on our investigation into Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women

The Globe's Matthew McClearn and Kathryn Blaze Baum

This Q&A has now ended. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions. Below are some of the highlights. See a full recap here.

A few of the questions answered by data journalist Matthew McClearn:

Is the data similar in the U.S. or is this particularly a Canadian issue?

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We haven't studied data from the U.S. in any great detail. However, from our conversations with serial predation experts in that country, we know that disadvantaged social groups in that country tend to be overrepresented among the victims of U.S. serial killers. Notably, we've heard that African American women are seriously overrepresented. Academics I spoke with told me that the overrepresentation of marginalized populations among the victims of serial predators was one of the few uncontroversial conclusions from existing research. Serial predation researchers argue about a lot, but they don't argue about that.

The RCMP have released a 2014 report (updated for 2015) that compiles the statistics for missing and murdered aboriginal women and compares them with the non-aboriginal community. Factors such as relationship of the perpetrator to the victim, unemployment, drug/alcohol abuse, and poverty are considered in this report. The report also states that roughly 90% of cases of missing/murdered women, both aboriginal and non, are solved.

That being said, do you feel this report is accurate? And what do you hope to find in your inquiry that may be different from this original report to help the aboriginal community in the long run?

We don't have the underlying data the RCMP prepared its reports from, which limits our ability to scrutinize their conclusions. That said, based on what I've seen, factors like poverty and addiction are highly relevant to the discussion.

One reason we chose to examine victims of serial predation is that it helped us identified issues that were overlooked or ignored in the RCMP reports. Those reports, particularly the 2015 update, emphasized the central role of family violence. And while we recognize that that's a relevant issue, when you look at serial predation cases, other issues come into focus. So while I don't have grounds to criticize the accuracy of the RCMP reports, I might gently suggest that they do leave some issues unexplored.

One more thing: police and the public often have quite different ideas of what qualifies as a "solved" case. Police often speak about "clearance rates." A cleared case can be one where the police have recommended charges be laid, for instance, but it may go no further than that. If you're a family member of a murdered woman, you may not consider that case solved. I recommend looking at police-reported "solve" rates in that light.

I'm a systems engineer and have an interest in data collection. Who do you think failed to collect the information over these many years?

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We can't be entirely sure what data has been collected, and by whom. To the best of our knowledge, there does seem to be a deficit of data collection around victims of serial predation in Canada. Statistics Canada and the RCMP are two bodies that might be interested in collecting data on this issue. The RCMP did tell us that in Manitoba and B.C., it collects and analyzes data on serial homicides using a database for violent offenders called ViCLAS. We don't have access to that data at the moment, however.

Some of the questions answered by reporter Kathryn Blaze Baum:

What is the weirdest unsolved case that you guys have come across?

One of the cases that has captured the nation's attention is that of Amber Tuccaro, a 20-year-old indigenous woman who disappeared about five years ago from the Edmonton area. Her skull was found in an area where several indigenous women's remains have been discovered. The RCMP have recently said a serial killer may be responsible for the deaths.

In 2012, police asked the public to help identify the "voice of a person of interest," releasing a recording of a cell-phone conversation Ms. Tuccaro had while driving in a vehicle with an unknown male. Project KARE investigators say the voice belongs to "someone who could assist them in their investigation."

You can read more here: http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/ab/news-nouvelles/archives/2012/120828-edm-tuccaro-eng.htm

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The voice recording is chilling. The case remains unsolved.

How much would you say their community (bands) have contributed to help, or not, these women?

Is living remotely, physically or social-culturally, a factor here?

It appears that improvement on Canadian law enforcement agencies is necessary, is this done with their communities in mind?

It is difficult to quantify the support of band councils as it relates to this issue, since there are hundreds of First Nations communities across the country.

In my travels, chiefs have been receptive to allowing me to visit the reserve, meet with families and try to get a sense for what is going on there. Certainly, there are some communities that have had more success with tackling violence against indigenous women than others.

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The RCMP, for instance, has identified 10 communities where indigenous women are a significantly elevated risk of violence. Six of them are in Saskatchewan, two are in Manitoba and there is one each in B.C. and the Northwest Territories.

Living remotely is certainly a factor. Consider the so-called Highway of Tears, where indigenous women have been dying and disappearing over the course of several decades. In some cases, the women were hitchhiking, since the communities along that stretch are so remote and there's no consistent public transit.

As for law enforcement, police across the country say many improvements have been made to, for example, missing-person investigations, including as it relates to the creation of dedicated task forces that examine historic cases.

Examples of this are Manitoba's Project Devote and Alberta's Project KARE.

Have any trends or patterns been identified? Also, I'm curious as to what some of your hypothesis' may be in regards to the motives behind this particular tragedy.

In examining our database of homicide and missing-person cases involving indigenous women, a Globe team noticed a pattern: Several names were listed in connection with more than one killing.

We set out to determine the extent to which serial killing fits into the broader tragedy of Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women. The discussion had so far centered on the RCMP's confirmation that 70 per cent of indigenous female homicide victims died at the hands of an indigenous men. The Mounties have emphasized a "strong nexus to family violence." There was also the assertion from former cabinet minister Bernard Valcourt, who said these tragedies came down to a lack of respect of indigenous women by indigenous men on reserves.

We were able to determine that indigenous women are roughly seven times more likely than non-indigenous women to be slain by a serial killer. Our investigation also found that at least 18 indigenous women died at the hands of convicted serial killers since 1980.

The majority of those women were killed in or near cities by non-indigenous men.

As for motive, it is difficult to establish that when, even in solved, cases a motive may never be revealed. Some indigenous leaders believe these are crimes of opportunity -- that offenders operate under the assumption that because the women are indigenous and, potentially vulnerable in some way, the cases will spur less response.

Has the attitude towards this topic changed with the government?

The former Conservative government long said it would not launch a national inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women. The Liberals, meantime, campaigned on a promise to swiftly set about initiating a probe.

The new Indigenous Affairs minister told me last week that the government would launch a national inquiry by this summer, saying Canadians have waited long enough.

In a departure from the party's tone while in power, the new Conservative leader, Rona Ambrose, has said the party will support the work of the inquiry.

The proof will be in the pudding. It remains to be seen what resources will be devoted to the inquiry, and whether the recommendations will be implemented. Certainly, the tone of the government on this issue is markedly different from that under the Conservatives, and victims' families have told me they have taken notice.

What areas are most dangerous?

The RCMP's unprecedented 2014 report found that about half of all female homicide victims in the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan were indigenous.

In that report, the Mounties promised to home in on 10 communities where indigenous women were at a significantly elevated risk of violence. It has since identified those 10 communities: Six are in Saskatchewan, two are in Manitoba and there is one each in B.C. and the Northwest Territories.

As for serial predation, we should note serial killing is exceedingly rare.

Our investigation determined that at least 18 aboriginal females were victims of convicted serial killers since 1980.

The majority of those women were slain in or near cities, and most were killed by non-indigenous men. The cases were prosecuted in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with the cities of Vancouver, Prince George, Saskatoon and Winnipeg most commonly listed as the woman's last place of residence.

Why do you think the Harper government was so resistant to really investigating this issue? If this many women had disappeared from the street of Toronto, I doubt the same resistance would happen.

It is impossible to get inside the minds of government officials, but let's examine what the former Conservative said publicly.

In the wake of the death of indigenous teen Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg, former prime minister Stephen Harper dismissed the need for an inquiry, saying the tragedies were not part of a sociological phenomenon but rather crimes best handled by police.

The government said the issue had been studied enough, over the course of many years, and that the time was nigh for action. There were some among the indigenous community who felt (and continue to feel) the same way.

Since being voted out of office in October, the Conservative Party has changed its tone. Interim leader Rona Ambrose has said she will support the Liberal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, which is expected to get off the ground by the summer.

Speaking as one deeply interested in the destruction of the native people on the North American continent, how do you feel these murders and the response to them fits into Canada's colonial and national history in regards to their indigenous people?

Indigenous leaders and advocates have long said that historic wrongdoings, as well as more modern social ills, factor into this tragedy in a significant way.

Take, for example, the residential-school system. Thousands of indigenous children were taken from their parents and placed in government-funded, church-run schools, where abuse was oftentimes rampant. The children were stripped of their indigenous identity and robbed of their parents' love.

This has left a legacy of challenges for those who were affected, as well as those whose parents or other relatives were affected.

A recent Truth and Reconciliation report said the residential school experience is tied to the disproportionate rate of indigenous children who are currently in the child-welfare system.

Let's look more specifically at the case of Tina Fontaine. Her father, Eugene Fontaine, was killed by two men in 2011. During their sentencing, their connection to the residential school system was discussed. A few years later, struggling with her father's death, Tina was placed in Manitoba's child-welfare system. In Winnipeg, she found drugs and sex work, and ended up being placed in a downtown Winnipeg hotel.

She disappeared from there and ended up in one of the city's rivers. Her 2014 case remains unsolved.

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