Canada's Indigenous Affairs Minister is promising to investigate whether a list of murdered and missing indigenous women compiled by the RCMP can be made public after she said "many, many" families believe their lost loved ones were not included in the count – and that the toll is much higher than the roughly 1,200 reported.
Carolyn Bennett said on Tuesday that during cross-country consultations ahead of a national inquiry she heard many accounts of police attributing suspicious deaths of aboriginal people to something other than homicide and therefore not investigating them.
"We've been hearing about someone who died by a shot through the back of her head [and it being] called a suicide, somebody whose arms are tied behind their back [being] called a suicide – the characterization of accidents, the characterization of 'it's just an overdose,'" Dr. Bennett told reporters. "You have to say that this is much greater."
For years, the number of deaths and disappearances cited at vigils and rallies honouring Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women was more than 3,000. But in 2014, an unprecedented RCMP report found 1,181 police-recorded cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women across all jurisdictions in Canada from 1980 to 2012 –164 missing and 1,017 homicide victims.
Dr. Bennett said people in indigenous communities have told her they know of women who have been murdered or gone missing who they believe are not on the RCMP list. The count has not been made public, so it is impossible to know whether there are omissions.
When asked on Tuesday if the RCMP list should be released to give families a chance to know if their loved ones are on it, Dr. Bennett said she would be "interested in finding out about that."
"I'll commit to looking at it," she said, noting some families have expressed privacy concerns.
Dr. Bennett said she is also considering whether the inquiry's commissioners will have to examine hundreds of cases that were not properly investigated.
The Globe and Mail filed an Access to Information request in April, 2015, for the RCMP's list of indigenous female homicide victims, but the force required an extension and has yet to provide the names.
The Mounties did not return calls on Tuesday about the statement that their numbers for missing and murdered women are too low.
Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters on Tuesday the actual number of cases could be about 4,000. She cited the Native Women's Association of Canada as the source of that information, but that is not NWAC's figure. Rather, it is based on a list compiled by a grassroots indigenous group that crossed the country collecting the names of missing and murdered women, aboriginal or otherwise, from families.
Gladys Radek, an indigenous advocate who co-founded the Walk4Justice after her niece disappeared in 2005, said marchers collected more than 3,000 names of missing and murdered women when they first travelled the country in 2008. About 60 per cent to 70 per cent of those cases – between 1,800 and 2,100 – involve indigenous women, she said. By 2011, she said, the list grew to more than 4,000 cases; somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 of those involve aboriginal women.
At the time of the 2008 walk, when advocates reached the steps of Parliament Hill with their list of names and made a public plea for a national inquiry into the tragedies, former Conservative MP Chuck Strahl was the minister of aboriginal affairs. The Conservative government had long dismissed calls for a national inquiry, with prime minister Stephen Harper asserting the deaths and disappearances are not part of a "sociological phenomenon."
Mr. Strahl said on Tuesday that he believes the number released by the RCMP in 2014 likely understates the toll. "I suspect [the actual figure] is higher than the so-called official number," he said. "I think many of [the cases] don't get reported for a bunch of reasons. Sometimes these are remote areas. Sometimes people don't trust the local authorities, whether the police or … local First Nations authorities."
Dawn Lavell-Harvard, the president of NWAC, said she would like the RCMP to release its data and make the list of names public. She said there is "room for error" in both the Mounties' list and the Walk4Justice list.
"If the truth is somewhere in the middle, it's still an outrageously high number," she said. "That's why the inquiry is so important – to get to the truth of some of this stuff."