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New database lists 824 murdered, missing native women in Canada

By: Mary Agnes Welch

Winnipeg Free Press

Some of the names are familiar, such as Cherisse Houle, the 17-year-old found lying face down in a creek just outside Winnipeg.

Some are forgotten, such as Constance Cameron, whose murder 30 years ago has never been solved.

One name is famous -- Helen Betty Osborne, whose death is emblematic of violent racism in Manitoba.

Those names and hundreds more appear on a new public database, the first of its kind, created by an Ottawa researcher. It pegs the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada at 824.

That's significantly higher than the widely used and often-criticized number of 582, cobbled together by the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC).

The NWAC's list was never public and could not be scrutinized or validated, but it helped catapult the issue of violence against indigenous women onto the national agenda.

The new research, which dug deeper into the past and the public record, shows the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Manitoba is 111, up from NWAC's oft-quoted figure of 79.

"I'm not shocked at the number and I know the community is not going to be shocked at the number because we've always said it was more," said Nahanni Fontaine, the province's special adviser on aboriginal women's issues. "And of course, each year, tragically, those numbers go up."

The new database is the first comprehensive and fully public list of missing and murdered aboriginal women, but activists in Ontario are working on a similar one for that province. The database was created by federal civil servant Maryanne Pearce and forms part of her PhD thesis for the University of Ottawa's law school.

The thesis, along with the database, were submitted last fall and is available online.

To gather a complete list of names, Pearce spent seven years cross-referencing newspaper articles, police websites and reports, court documents and other public sources, much as the NWAC did.

Pearce identified thousands of missing and murdered women and was able to determine 824 were Inuit, Métis or First Nations. Her list includes 115 Manitoba women, but further research suggests four young women listed as missing have been found, two recently.

Pearce could not be reached for comment this week, but her thesis advisers are two well-regarded experts in aboriginal law and social science research.

When contacted about Pearce's work, they called it "excellent."

Among her findings, Pearce found 80 per cent of missing or murdered aboriginal women were not in the sex trade. That's despite the perception most cases involve prostitutes or women engaged in high-risk behaviour.

The perception that many missing or murdered women put themselves in harm's way has been used to unfairly discount the problem, said Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

Shawna Ferris, a University of Manitoba gender studies professor, agreed, saying much of the reporting on missing and murdered aboriginal women focuses on whether the victims are involved in the sex trade. Mug shots and details of a woman's street life or addictions don't help to cultivate public concern.

"Shouldn't we be aiming for a city where regardless of the trials people are going through, they're not killed?"

Nepinak said a comprehensive list that can been tested and validated makes it difficult for government, especially Ottawa, to sidestep the issue, and helps bolster the case for a national inquiry into the epidemic of violence against aboriginal women.

"We've only scratched the surface of what happened here," Nepinak said.

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