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missing and murdered

Agnes Beauvais McDonald, left to right, her daughter Cheryl McDonald and Viviane Michel, president of the Quebec Native Women Inc. listen to speeches during the release of a report on missing and murdered indigenous women in the province of Quebec, in Kahnawake, Que., on Monday, Dec. 14, 2015. On Wednesday, the OPP released a report on murders and disappearances of aboriginal women and men in its jurisdiction between 1956 and 2014.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Sonya Cywink's slain body was discovered more than two decades ago at a national historic site southwest of London, Ont. Rachel Russell was killed by a blow to the head in 2007. Her body was found on a remote railway line in the lakeside community of Cobourg, Ont. James Strang was slain in his Northern Ontario home one year later. He was 83 years old.

They are among 180 aboriginal women and men who have been victims of homicide in recent decades in communities served by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). Another 48 indigenous people are missing, and foul play cannot be ruled out in any of their cases. Some of the disappearances stretch far back, to the 1950s.

The statistics and names are part of an OPP report on the unsolved murders and disappearances of aboriginal women and men that occurred in provincial police jurisdictions between 1956 and 2014. The 23-page report, released Wednesday, sheds further light on the violent end befalling some indigenous people. The findings come as the federal government prepares to launch an inquiry next year into the plight of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. The RCMP has estimated that more than 1,200 indigenous women have gone missing or been killed in the country between 1980 and 2014.

"Far too many First Nation families do not have any closure," said Isadore Day, Ontario regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations. "Far too many First Nation people are victims of the worst crimes imaginable."

Across Canada, indigenous women are six times more likely to be homicide victims than non-indigenous women while aboriginal men are seven times more likely to be murdered than non-aboriginal men, Statistics Canada said last month. Aboriginal women account for a growing share of female homicide victims in Canada – 21 per cent last year, compared with 14 per cent in 1991.

Mr. Day and deputy Grand Chief Denise Stonefish commended the OPP for its report and for putting names and faces to the unsolved homicides and disappearances. Brief case descriptions were also included.

Ms. Stonefish challenged other police services to follow suit and conduct their own analyses of missing and murdered aboriginal cases in their communities. She said the OPP's findings reinforce the need to address violence in indigenous communities against women and men, girls and boys.

"As First Nations, it is our responsibility to take all necessary measures to ensure there is absolutely no tolerance for violence and abuse in our communities," she said.

OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes hopes the report will spark new tips and leads that could help solve cases and provide families with long-sought answers.

Of the 180 homicides involving indigenous people, nine are unsolved. Eight of those involve female victims.

"We recognize that there are many unanswered questions," the commissioner said at a media conference in Vaughan, north of Toronto. Detective Superintendent Dave Truax added, "Those who have lost a loved one live with this pain every day."

The OPP began compiling information about indigenous homicides and missing-persons cases in 2011. Its analysis shows there were 54 homicides involving indigenous women between 1964 and last year, and 126 homicides of indigenous men between 1978 and last year. Of the 48 missing-persons cases, eight involve indigenous women.

The missing and murdered numbers could be higher, Det. Supt. Truax said, because indigenous identity might not be known in some cases.

The OPP's solve rate in male aboriginal homicides is higher than for indigenous women – 99 per cent compared with 85 per cent. Det. Supt. Truax said several factors could account for the lower clearance rate in aboriginal female homicides, including when and where remains were located. He noted that the OPP's overall homicide solve rate was 92 per cent between 2010 and 2014.

Mr. Day suggested additional analysis should be done to determine whether systemic problems are affecting the solve rate in homicides of indigenous women. The provincial police service considers homicides solved when a criminal charge is laid. But the OPP does not monitor the outcome of those charges in the courts, so the number of convictions is unclear. Commissioner Hawkes said he is open to looking into the issue of tracking what happens to murder charges.

The OPP data offer some insight into the perpetrators of the homicides.

Of the 46 solved cases involving aboriginal women, 26 were killed by a family member or domestic partner, 19 were slain by people known to the victim and one was killed in unknown circumstances.

In the 125 solved male homicides, most victims were also killed by people known to them: 45 were killed by a family member or spouse, while 70 were slain by a person known to the victims. The commissioner said neighbours and friends are examples of people considered known to victims, though their relationships may not be close.

Several Ontario First Nations leaders met with families of missing and murdered aboriginal women in February. Mr. Day said many families voiced frustration with how investigations were handled and felt police could have done more. Some also raised concern about inadequate communication.

Commissioner Hawkes said the OPP has invested in native-awareness training for officers and is continually working to improve communication with families.

Maggie Cywink, whose sister Sonya Cywink is among the OPP's unsolved homicides, said it's encouraging that the police are shining more light on the issue and finally bringing it "to the national stage."

While her own experience with the OPP has been positive, she said on a broader basis, more work needs to be done in rebuilding the relationship between the police and First Nations communities.

"Trust has been broken and trust needs to be rebuilt. And that's a slow process," Ms. Cywink said.

Her sister was from the Whitefish River First Nation. Sonya was 31 when her remains were discovered in August, 1994, at a native historical site known as the Southwold Earthworks, southwest of London. She was pregnant when she was killed.

Her sister remembers a "kind and gracious" woman who was positive and happy, "even in the face of darkness and battles with her own problems."

She hopes a national inquiry will take swift steps to prevent more women from going missing and being murdered – and that the result will lead to a stronger justice system.