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Canada Substantial gap discovered in RCMP database of anonymous dead

Reports on human remains of 266 individuals left out of RCMP database represent ‘huge gap.’ Lorelei Williams, who was in Ottawa last month for a national roundtable on missing and murdered aboriginal women. “That is so many families that [could] put closure to this. I’m wondering if my aunt is there.”

Eric Thayer

This story is part of an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation into hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.

Reports on more than 250 unidentified human remains are not in an RCMP-managed database created to help link the missing with the anonymous dead – a substantial gap the federal police agency refuses to acknowledge.

A Globe and Mail investigation uncovered the discrepancy after a survey of the country's coroners and medical examiners. The Globe found there were 697 unidentified remains in Canada when the data were collected, but the RCMP says its national database had files on only 431 nameless deceased as of Feb. 24.

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This means information on 266 unidentified remains – nearly four in 10 – is not being electronically checked against missing-persons reports: 6,762 people, including children, were listed as vanished in late February.

Police and death investigators view the national database and its automated software-driven analysis, which began operating in May, as a powerful tool for helping solve cold cases and returning nameless deceased to their families. In some instances, an identification could help put a killer behind bars.

Ontario and British Columbia, the two provinces with the most unidentified remains, have undertaken reviews in a bid to narrow the discrepancy. The absence of so many anonymous dead is prompting some families to question Ottawa's commitment to naming the nameless.

"That's a huge gap," said Lorelei Williams, who was in Ottawa last month for a national roundtable on missing and murdered aboriginal women. "That is so many families that [could] put closure to this. I'm wondering if my aunt is there."

Ms. Williams's aunt, Belinda Williams, disappeared in 1977 in British Columbia. Her family does not know what happened to her, or whether she is alive. A cousin of Ms. Williams, Tanya Holyk, also went missing. Her DNA was found on serial killer Robert Pickton's farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C.

In response to questions about the database gap, the RCMP said it does not confirm The Globe's figures. The police force also did not address why the discrepancy exists or whether it is concerned files are missing from the database, which is fed by reports submitted to the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) – also managed by the Mounties.

RCMP spokesman Sergeant Greg Cox said the police agency's National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains (NCMPUR) works with primary investigators to ensure relevant information about missing persons and unidentified remains are entered into CPIC and thereby into the relevant database.

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Although coroners and medical examiners are responsible for identifying the anonymous dead, it is police who have access to CPIC and upload data.

"The information contained in CPIC is added, maintained, modified and removed by each contributing police agency," Sgt. Cox said in an e-mail.

Creating the database was a key goal of NCMPUR, established in 2011. The Conservative government said the centre would be an important investigative tool for police, coroners and medical examiners. The government said it could also help address the "disturbing number" of unsolved cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women.

Indigenous women are far more likely to disappear or be killed than non-aboriginal women. In May, 2014, an RCMP report revealed that 1,181 aboriginal women vanished or were slain between 1980 and 2012.

British Columbia, which has Canada's most advanced strategy for linking missing persons with unidentified remains, last year moved to address the discrepancy between its anonymous-dead caseload and the number of files in CPIC. Two people – one from the B.C. Coroners Service and one from B.C. RCMP – reviewed and analyzed information in 64 cases not in CPIC or the NCMPUR database.

"It is important that we have these cases on NCMPUR to improve the likelihood of identification," said Laurel Clegg, acting manager of the coroners service's identification and disaster response unit. "These families are waiting."

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Some of the 64 cases were open but inactive, Ms. Clegg noted. Some were closed because there was no hope of identification at the time. As technology advances, cases are reopened.

"Now we're saying, 'We have DNA. We have all these tools now that we didn't have then. Let's go back and look at those cases,'" Ms. Clegg said. B.C. had 183 unidentified remains at the time of the Globe survey.

Neither Manitoba, Quebec nor Nunavut would comment on the discrepancy between the number of files in the national centre's database and the total tallied by The Globe, saying the database and CPIC are under federal jurisdiction.

The coroners services also said they could not answer whether all of their unidentified remains – four in Manitoba, 169 in Quebec and 11 in Nunavut – are in CPIC. Nova Scotia also did not know how many of its 14 unidentified files are in CPIC, while Saskatchewan chief coroner Kent Stewart said three of its eight nameless deceased are listed in the police information centre.

"In the other cases, we are considering whether there is any value in entering the information, particularly given the nature of the specimen," Mr. Stewart said in an e-mail.

Ontario's chief coroner, Dirk Huyer, said his office does not know how many of the province's 239 files are in CPIC and the NCMPUR database, but he does know some are missing.

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Dr. Huyer plans to send letters to Ontario police chiefs in the next few months to outline the issue and work toward getting all of Ontario's unidentified remains into the RCMP-managed database, which his office supports.

"The whole purpose is to try to identify people, and so if you don't have them in the database, then there won't be the analysis with the missing persons and the potential analysis with Interpol or with the U.S.," Dr. Huyer said.

The database gap troubles Barry Shpeley, whose daughter, Candace, was last seen nearly eight years ago in Surrey, B.C.

"That is an issue of concern, not just for me, but for anybody else that has somebody missing," he said. "My concern is that they're never going to get these into the database."

Darlene Okemaysim-Sicotte, co-chair of Iskwewuk E-wichiwitochik, a Saskatoon-based group that supports families of missing and murdered aboriginal women, wants Ottawa to improve its strategy for finding the missing and identifying the anonymous dead.

"Why build a ladder and forget to put the nails in to hold it up?" she said. "These are people's lives. These are people's families."

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