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Opinion Will the MMIWG inquiry’s report change the way we police in Canada?

A woman holds a sign during the closing ceremony of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Gatineau, Que., on June 3, 2019.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Lorimer Shenher is a former Vancouver Police Department detective and lead investigator of Vancouver’s missing women investigation. His books include That Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away which chronicles his experiences working on the Robert Pickton case.

“There is no reliable estimate of the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA persons in Canada.” The words stare back at me from Page 237 in Volume 1B of Reclaiming Power and Place, better known as The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

What policy could possibly compel police officers to value lives they deem to be of so little importance as to not even count? What recommendations could forcibly end decades of an informal, two-tier level of police service – one for those lives the police can understand and another for those they hold only a stereotypical idea? How do you force a toxic police culture to give a damn about those they view as subhuman?

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Those words reminded me of a phone call I made to the Toronto Police Service as a young Vancouver Police detective back in 1998, newly assigned to “explore” a seeming uptick in the number of missing women in our city. My first step had been to try to grasp just what numbers we were dealing with; I reached out across the provinces for reports of women missing from other jurisdictions who were last known to be in Vancouver.

I was told that the Toronto Police didn’t keep missing-persons statistics by occupation, gender, or race – including Indigenous women, or any women involved in sex work, struggling with addiction and/or mental-health issues. “If there was a problem, we’d probably hear of it through the media,” a detective assured me. I did not feel assured.

I very quickly learned police officers informally categorized women as those “truly missing” – women and girls, usually students or working jobs, who went missing from lives police perceived as “normal” – and those they referred to as “not actually missing.” This latter group, whose motives for a sudden absence supposedly could not be assessed as sinister, due to living lives of marginalization and, in a bizarre marriage of stereotyping and flawed logic, high levels of risk for victimization by violence, unfathomably generated little concern and even less investigation from police.

Could this report signal an end to this tragedy? This impressive document carries an ambitious, confident and hopeful tone. The inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women struggled with police file sharing, noting a marked contrast in the level of co-operation from the unnecessarily secretive RCMP and the more forthcoming municipal agencies.

While RCMP Chief Commissioner Brenda Lucki promised only to “give careful consideration to changes that strengthen investigations, support survivors and their families,” Regina Police Chief Evan Bray epitomized the difference between the RCMP and most municipal departments, explaining, “[Police] have to understand we all played a role in this … With no disrespect to other policing agencies, they have [said] we haven’t done the best and we need to get better. The only way we are going to get better as a community is accept that truth, take steps to get better.”

Women march at the closing ceremony of the inquiry in Gatineau on June 3.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Municipal agencies acknowledge the biases we all – every single human – carry and encourage conversation around how to be better, do better. There is a section called “The Need to Reform Law Enforcement to Increase Safety” that identifies problem areas while acknowledging that solutions that avoid placing the onus on Indigenous people to report and confront police power structures are difficult to conceive.

The report itemizes paths to change policing in Canada. While I would have liked to see mention of the RCMP Act and the Ministry of Public Safety’s role in creating and enforcing any repercussions for officers who exhibit racial and gender bias, the report does call for the creation of an independent unit to investigate police misconduct against Indigenous peoples. Ideally, this unit would investigate police misconduct against all minorities and vulnerable people, but it’s a start.

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The debate will rage on as to whether this tragedy qualifies as a genocide; it’s a red herring, really, allowing non-Indigenous Canadians to keep their gaze centred firmly on themselves, holding it fixedly away from the native experience.

Consider this: We have across the whole of Canada the equivalent of a gigantic potter’s field, a virtual mass, unmarked grave of thousands of uncounted, unnamed women denied even the most basic decency of police tallying their absence. There would be mass outrage, vigils and rivers of tears if these were middle-class Caucasian women and girls instead of the doubt and disdain we’re hearing from some Canadians about the report’s determinations. It’s difficult to imagine, because that never would have been allowed to happen.

After several conversations with officials in 2016, I declined Chief Commissioner Marion Buller’s invitation to participate formally in the inquiry, citing my own lack of confidence after living through the failed B.C. Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry.

I see now I should have been proud to take part, but this is work centred around the power of Indigenous women, not former cops. They never needed me, nor do they now. They need police to step aside, accept their findings and enact the called-for change. They’ve spoken through this report, saying, “we got this” and they’re telling Canadians what they need from us.

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