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Editorials Not enough data, not enough answers, on missing indigenous women

Tina Fontaine Tina Fontaine's portrait sits on an end table at her aunt Thelma Favel's home on the Sagkeeng First Nation, Pine Falls Manitoba August 20, 2014. Lyle Stafford for the Globe and Mail

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

This story is part of an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation into the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.

Let the statistics speak, as they painfully emerge, about the missing and murdered indigenous women of Canada – and let the victims be mourned and, sometimes, restored to their communities.

An RCMP report last year found that 1,181 indigenous women were killed or disappeared between 1980 and 2012; of these, 164 are missing. This country also has at least 697 unidentified human remains. To improve the record of finding those who have gone missing, Parliament late last year enacted legislation to create a DNA-based databank, making it more likely to find matches between missing people and unidentified remains.

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It's the right objective, and one part of solving the puzzle. But as a Globe and Mail investigation reveals, the DNA database, so late in coming, already appears likely to fall short. Canada's plans are inferior to a similar American database that serves as its model. It isn't sufficiently funded, and data may not be consistently compiled across the country. Canada should be gathering as much information as possible on missing people and found remains, and placing them in a database that finds connections, if any. For the data to speak, we need data.

An effective database of the missing and the found would be one important step in solving the mystery of disappeared aboriginal women, and those of any Canadians who have gone missing.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was not entirely wrong when he said last year that many of these cases are matters of crime. But his accompanying depreciation of sociological phenomena was mistaken. Solving a crime does not mean understanding, let alone addressing, an underlying cause. And the goal should be to prevent missing native women from disappearing, not simply figuring out, after the fact, who turned them into a corpse. Canadian police, scholars and governments still have a weak grasp on what the numbers really are, let alone what they mean.

Tina Fontaine's body was found in the Red River last August, but she might not have been found at all, and been classified as simply missing. In November, Rinelle Harper, living in Winnipeg and apparently thriving, was assaulted; she seems to have narrowly escaped death, or disappearance into the Assiniboine River. A body found and a child rescued: In both these cases, at least we know something about what happened. But when it comes to the still-missing, we even don't know what happened. And not knowing what, we can't begin to understand why. That has to change.

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