Ontario's provincial police force is finalizing a report on the unsolved murders and disappearances of aboriginal women – and men – that have occurred within its jurisdiction, raising the hopes of First Nations that some investigations will be reopened.
The RCMP have acknowledged more than 1,200 cases in Canada of murdered and missing aboriginal women between 1980 and 2014. Now other forces, including the Ontario Provincial Police, are assessing the scope of the problem in their own regions.
The trails of many of the perpetrators have gone cold and, in many instances, the killers are no longer being actively sought. But increased determination on the part of police agencies across the country to solve crimes against Canada's indigenous women and girls, along with improved investigative techniques, raises the possibility that some grieving families may finally get the answers they have been seeking.
Supt. Mark Pritchard, the commander of the OPP's aboriginal policing bureau, said the work of compiling a list of the cases and the details surrounding them began three years ago and arose out of concerns expressed by the Native Women's Association of Canada and the Sisters in Spirit movement.
While those groups focused on the number of aboriginal woman being slain, Supt. Pritchard said the OPP decided to also look at the cases of missing and murdered aboriginal men. A final report has now been drafted and the force is consulting with stakeholders.
"The report names specific people and locations and dates," Supt. Pritchard said. "For every one of those, we want to touch base with the families and let them know that it's happening and also let them see it."
Once the report is made public, he said, "there is always a value in fresh eyes looking at old cases and technology changes, new approaches, new investigative techniques … ."
Ray Michalko, a former RCMP officer who is a private investigator in British Columbia, said he believes there would be much to gain from the reopening of cold cases involving aboriginal victims in every part of Canada.
Police in B.C. say that "back in the day," they were not given the resources to adequately investigate the murders and disappearances of indigenous people, Mr. Michalko said. "If I am right, then there are going to be cases across the country where more could have been done or should have been done," he said. "Maybe by reviewing these files, they may come up with something."
Families of victims remain skeptical that the police are truly interested in finding out what happened to their loved ones – especially in those cases where much time has passed.
Tamara Chipman, the 22-year-old mother of a two-year-old boy, vanished 10 years ago this month while hitchhiking out of Prince Rupert, B.C., the northernmost tip of the what is known as the Highway of Tears. Her aunt, Gladys Radek, has spent the past decade raising awareness about the problem of the missing and murdered women.
In Ms. Chipman's case, the police were not notified until a few weeks after she vanished. "It was pretty much a cold case for them and I think they pretty much gave up on her almost immediately," Ms. Radek said.
If there was any interest on the part of cold-case investigators to take a new look at her disappearance, "we would love to see that happen," she said. "But I doubt it will. There is a lot of racism with the police, a lot of stereotyping."
Still, some First Nations leaders are optimistic that the amount of recent publicity given to the murders of aboriginal women could see cold cases reopened and crimes solved.
"The reality is that First Nations women were really second-class, third-class citizens and that's why we're dealing with these cases," said Isadore Day, the Ontario regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations. But "the culture has changed. Social justice is real. There's a lot more transparency and accountability on the part of the police agencies and I think willingness from folks like the Ontario Provincial Police."
Once the OPP release their report, the cases it outlines could jog memories, he said. "We may see people step forward and talk about those cases that they wouldn't have in the past."