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Canada Winnipeg police told to stress protection of indigenous women

Aboriginal people gather around the monument to missing or murdered women and girls in Winnipeg in August.

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

The Winnipeg police board voted unanimously to make the protection of indigenous women and girls a priority for the city's police force, a powerful signal of the change in the public's awareness and concern about the issue, according to one board member.

The board, which met Friday, also asked the city's police chief, Devon Clunis, to provide an update on the investigations into missing and murdered indigenous women in the city at its next meeting and thereafter provide quarterly updates on his efforts to better protect indigenous women.

Leslie Spillett, a police board member and a long-time advocate on the issue of missing and murdered women, said the motion was adopted in a spirit of partnership with the police service and welcomed by the police chief.

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The protection of women and girls has always been a priority, she said, but this makes the policy direction clear and emphasizes the board's support for deploying resources to tackle the issue.

"You can feel that the culture of indifference that we always talked about is really shifting," Ms. Spillett said. "It's hard to pinpoint when [it turned], but for sure around Tina Fontaine, when she was found in the river, I think a lot of people started asking 'What's going on here?' And more recently the assault of the other young woman, Rinelle Harper. So a shift has taken place."

Ms. Fontaine, a 15-year-old girl, was found dead in Winnipeg's Red River in August, her body stuffed in a bag. It was a crime that shocked the community and led to an outpouring of public sympathy.

Last month, in an another attack, Ms. Harper, at age 16, was assaulted and left for dead on a riverbank but was rescued.

The motion gives the police a mandate, Ms. Spillett said, that the better protection of indigenous women and girls should be a key component of the police's new strategic plan.

It also calls for a strengthening of the police counter-exploitation unit, for the creation of an indigenous advisory council on policing and for officers to receive more training in cultural sensitivity.

"It sends a message to our community, to Manitobans and maybe even beyond Manitoba, that the lives of indigenous women and girls matter," Ms. Spillett said.

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"I've heard so often from families that it's like our children don't matter. This indicates that we do matter. I think we all walk taller today as a result."

Scott Gillingham, a Winnipeg city councillor who chairs the police board, said it's an important motion that reflects what the board has heard from the community, that the protection of indigenous women and girls needs to be emphasized.

"The chief encouraged the board to take the lead on this," Mr. Gillingham said. "This is about the board doing what it can to make sure there are initiatives in place to address the safety of indigenous women and girls."

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