Ottawa is one step closer to creating a DNA-based national missing-persons tool it says will assist coroners and police in solving cases and identifying human remains – a victory for families who have long pressed for the database despite privacy concerns and funding obstacles.
The proposed legislation, introduced in the Conservatives' latest budget bill, is the culmination of more than a decade of advocacy by those calling for a system that can compare missing persons' DNA with samples culled from unidentified human remains. Victims' families say the national database will give them the comfort of knowing that if their missing loved one is in a morgue somewhere, at least they'll know.
Judy Peterson, whose daughter disappeared at the age of 14 in 1993, has been a key proponent of the measure and was on hand at the government's announcement in Ottawa on Monday. "When I understood that I couldn't put Lindsey's DNA into a databank to find out if her remains were anywhere in Canada, I was horrified," she said. "I'm absolutely thrilled to see the legislation in print."
The budget bill is aimed at creating a missing-persons index, a human-remains index and an index for relatives whose profiles may be valuable in locating loved ones or identifying remains. The new indexes will be housed within the RCMP's National DNA Data Bank facility, which already holds a crime-scene index and a convicted-offenders index.
The legislation says profiles uploaded to the missing-persons index and the human-remains index can be compared against those in the crime-scene index and the convicted-offenders index – a move that could set up a battle with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, which said it doesn't object to a missing-persons database so long as it's tightly secured and independent from the criminal indexes.
The Privacy Commissioner's Office told The Globe and Mail it is reviewing the proposed amendments to the DNA Identification Act and will be looking closely at the relationship between the new indexes and the existing criminal ones. The Criminal Lawyers' Association has also raised concerns about linking the various indexes, saying it's possible an intentionally "missing" person's DNA could innocently end up at a crime scene. The association argues police might then become aware of that person's whereabouts, infringing on privacy rights.
Ms. Peterson defended the government's plans, saying she wants to look for Lindsey in the crime-scene index because if her daughter was killed but no remains were found, then it's possible a trace of Lindsey is in that index.
The proposed legislation also comes amid immense pressure on Ottawa to do more to tackle the issue of Canada's more than 1,181 murdered and missing aboriginal women.
Conservative Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, a victims' rights advocate since his daughter's 2002 murder, told reporters at the announcement Monday that the DNA-based measure will help solve crimes, including those involving native women. He also said underlying problems in aboriginal communities, such as poverty and substance abuse, must be addressed because those factors are sometimes "linked to risks of crime."
The Assembly of First Nations said some families cautiously support the database but are wary of Ottawa's motives for acquiring genetic samples. It also wants the federal government to be more pro-active. "A databank is an after-the-fact approach," the assembly said in a statement to The Globe. "There needs to be strong and effective measures aimed at preventing and stopping these kinds of incidents from occurring in the first place."