In death, three women shine light on Manitoba’s epidemic of missing natives

Monday, September 7, 2009

All three of them, as children, were hooked on crack cocaine and locked into a life spent selling themselves for money, drugs, food, shelter and the illusion of protection they couldn’t get anywhere else.

All spent years bouncing around Manitoba’s foster-care, youth-correction and child-welfare systems, from one program for at-risk minors to another.

And all were found dead, their bodies dumped on the outskirts of town. No one has been charged in their deaths, two of which have so far been declared homicides.

Cherisse Houle, Hillary Angel Wilson and Fonassa Bruyere, the teenage girls who have become the face of Winnipeg’s epidemic of missing and murdered young aboriginal women, have a lot in common. And they have become, quite literally, on police press releases and bulletin boards across the region, poster children for systemic failure in child welfare and police investigations – what a Manitoba cabinet minister calls a “state of emergency” for the region.

Those closest to the women suggest that police may not have been searching hard enough for them. But now Winnipeg-area police forces have announced that a new task force will probe the cases of the three teens and dozens of others like them.

It’s a move that comes years after the first calls for a special investigation into what native groups estimate are 75 women missing or murdered across Manitoba since the 1960s.

“This shouldn’t be happening. In a properly functioning society, this should not be happening,” says Provincial Court Judge Lawrence Allen, who spent years working as a Crown prosecutor in Winnipeg and agreed to speak to The Globe and Mail about the missing women of Winnipeg (an unusual step for a member of the bench).

“It shouldn’t be enough [for police] to say, ‘Well, we are out there and we periodically try and arrest these guys and make them go to john school’ or whatever. It’s not working. It isn’t enough. And the proof it isn’t working are the dead kids.”

Winnipeg’s aboriginal community is one of the largest in urban Canada. Its families are disproportionately poor; its children are often reliant on an over-burdened provincial child-welfare system that can leave youth at risk as much as it shelters them.

“They’re on the streets and they’re not being monitored, they are getting involved in drug possession and theft and crimes. … It’s a terrible introduction to life when you think this is happening to children as young as 10 and 11,” Judge Allen says.

“These kids have been so through the ringer that they’re burned out by the time they’re 17 and 18. But it’s a dangerous combination and inevitably, when children are getting into cars with strange men day after day after day, it’s not surprising that some of them are suffering, or being killed.”

On Wednesday, RCMP issued a call for tips into Ms. Wilson’s death. They weren’t getting enough leads, said spokeswoman Sergeant Line Karpish.

“We were actually a bit disappointed, quite frankly, because with all the media attention the case got, we thought we would be inundated and it turned out to be quite the opposite.”

The scenario has been seen before. The disappearance of dozens of women – most of them drug-addicted prostitutes and most of them aboriginal – from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside eventually sparked the creation of a task force investigating the cases, culminating in the arrest and conviction of Robert Pickton.

In Edmonton, police task force Project Kare is probing a spate of similar deaths and missing-persons cases involving people in what police consider high-risk lifestyles. Thomas Svekla, the first person charged as a result of the work of that task force, was convicted last year of killing a prostitute.

Ms. Houle, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Bruyere grew up together in Winnipeg’s north end. They spent time with each other’s families; they shared the same group of friends, going to the same skating rink.

Ms. Houle and Ms. Wilson, especially, remained close through time spent together on and off at a youth correction centre. Ms. Houle, 17, was transferred this spring from a foster home to emergency housing at an aboriginal centre reserved for girls deemed vulnerable to sexual exploitation; Ms. Wilson, 18 and therefore no longer the province’s responsibility, was on her own, trying to get clean.

Ms. Houle was found dead on the outskirts of town in July. Police found Ms. Wilson’s body six weeks later, almost exactly two years after Ms. Bruyere was killed.

Sgt. Karpish says she doesn’t know why people haven’t been coming forward with information, but she said a lack of trust in police shouldn’t be a factor.

“We have to get past the trust part here,” says Sgt. Karpish. “We’re trying to solve a homicide.”

But Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Vancouver-based Battered Women’s Support Services, says police have lost credibility in the community because it’s believed that missing-persons reports have been delayed when the person in question was deemed to have too transient or risky a lifestyle.

“They’re going to have to demonstrate that they care,” she says. “They’ve got work to do in terms of appearing credible.”

Police are exploring all possible links, Sgt. Karpish says, but she notes that the things connecting the three girls, and other missing or murdered women, could just be coincidence.

“Winnipeg is not that big of a city – you need to understand that. For one aboriginal woman to know another aboriginal woman in the same age bracket [living] in the north end, that’s not that original.”

The police task force, announced last week, is still in the planning stages. On Thursday, the province announced the creation of an “action group” dedicated to the non-criminal aspects of Winnipeg’s missing-women epidemic: Community groups are expected to collaborate and advise the provincial government on how to address the missing-women crisis.

Eric Robinson, a Cree MLA, Minister of Culture, Heritage and Tourism and Acting Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, is spearheading the group, which he says is long overdue.

“We need to see this for what it is: It’s a state of emergency.”

Judge Allen says he thinks the crisis of exploited young girls has become worse since he was a prosecutor.

But he says issues of missing women tend to enter the spotlight briefly and then disappear without anything being solved.

“These things come to the attention of the public so sporadically and then people just forget about it. Meanwhile, if you drive down to certain street corners, there’s a whole bunch of babies standing on the street, getting into the cars of strange men. And then people are surprised when they end up missing and dead.”

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