This story is part of an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation into the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.
There is heartbreak in this world most of us can't imagine. A child goes missing, never to be seen again. For the parents, the search for that son or daughter never ends. Often, they will go to their graves wondering what happened.
There are variations of this tragedy playing out in Canada every day. Husbands, mothers, sisters, brothers – vanished, never to be heard from again. The national round table on missing and murdered indigenous women convening in Ottawa on Friday is a sobering reminder of a particularly disturbing aspect of this phenomenon, one that remains a stain on this country.
Families of the missing seek one thing above all: finality. After a certain length of time, resignation sets in; people accept that the person they love is likely gone for good. But that isn't enough. Most want something more definitive, proof that gives them enough certainty to release them from the bonds of misery and despair that imprison them from the first day of a loved one's disappearance.
Canada's forthcoming DNA-based database for missing and unidentified persons is supposed to be an invaluable weapon in the search for answers to hundreds of disappearances that possibly could be linked to human remains that are either buried or exist in storage containers held in the offices of coroners or medical examiners across the country.
The tough-on-crime Conservative government took bows when it proclaimed that the database would, in part, help unlock the mystery of what happened to nearly 1,200 aboriginal women who were killed or murdered between 1980 and 2012, according to the RCMP. Of those 164 were missing.
But as an investigation by The Globe and Mail has shown, the government's plans on this front fall disappointingly short. What we will have, in fact, is a second-rate version of a similar but much superior system in the United States.
The months-long Globe probe has revealed that we are years behind other jurisdictions, including our neighbours to the south, in identifying our anonymous dead and this will likely remain the case unless the government demonstrates a greater commitment to the DNA database it is creating to link cases across the country.
What we have discovered is this: Ottawa will not pay for DNA testing in missing persons and unidentified remains cases, as the U.S. government does. Coroners, medical examiners, police – all cash-strapped in these uncertain economic times and who mostly do testing on a case-to-case basis – are going to have to find that money. It will also be up to them to decide which types of DNA to profile. In the United States, they analyze two central types as a matter of routine, which increases the chances of finding matches.
The Canadian database, consequently, will likely not be nearly as effective in identifying the remains of hundreds of anonymous dead that now exist in this country.
The police are already expressing concerns there won't be enough money available to do all the DNA testing needed. This means fewer cases will be DNA profiled and the effectiveness of the database will shrink. In fact, despite all the public back-slapping that originally greeted the news that the Harper government was going ahead with this database, the status quo could well remain unchanged.
The Conservative government has committed a bit more than $8-million over five years to establish the database and then will contribute $1.3-million a year after that to maintain it. But there is no federal money for sample testing. In the United States, Washington paid about $10-million over the past decade for its testing – in a country nine times as large as ours. In other words, we are not talking about vast sums of money to ensure we get the most out of the missing persons and unidentified remains DNA database we will have at our disposal when it launches in 2017.
Most of us will never know the pain that arrives when someone you love vanishes. As some have said, it's like losing a physical part of yourself – an arm, a foot, a leg. You learn to cope, but you are constantly reminded of what's missing. Too much of the grief associated with this particular type of tragedy is centred among our indigenous communities.
We should be doing everything we can to provide the often uneasy answers to those who have spent a lifetime, in some cases, in search of them. That is why the federal government needs to do the right thing and ensure the step forward it has taken to help identify hundreds of anonymous dead in our country is not a wasted one.