5 questions for the MMIW inquiry based on CBC’s Unresolved investigation

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Canada’s inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women began Thursday, but questions remain about whether commissioners will look into unresolved cases where families disagree with authorities that there was no foul play.

CBC’s Missing and Murdered: Unresolved project has found at least 34 cases that authorities say were suicides, accidental deaths or otherwise deemed not to have involved foul play.

The women’s families don’t accept the official findings, with some accusing the authorities of neglect, errors and racism.

The inquiry is examining the factors driving a systemic, high rate of violence against Indigenous women and girls, and the role of various institutions, including police forces, governments and coroners’ offices.

Here are five questions for the inquiry based on the findings of Unresolved:

1. Will the inquiry commission re-examine unresolved cases?

The commission has the authority to summon witnesses, compel documents and can refer matters to police. However, it can’t find anyone criminally liable.

“The other terms of reference do not require us to re-investigate closed cases. We are not empowered to have our own separate police investigators,” Marion Buller, the inquiry’s chief commissioner, told CBC’s Power and Politics program Wednesday.

One case that was examined in the Unresolved project is that of 19-year-old Trudy Gopher, who was found dead on May 10, 1997, behind the Sunchild First Nation School in Rocky Mountain House, Alta. She had been attending a wedding in the Alberta Cree community at the time of her death.

A medical examiner determined she killed herself. Although Alberta RCMP recently re-examined the case, no further investigation was found to be warranted.

Her mother, Grace Gopher, says she suspects Trudy was killed and then hanged with her own jacket from a tree to make it look like a suicide.

“Nothing was done over her death because they automatically ruled it as a suicide,” Grace Gopher said. “Whoever did that to my daughter is walking around free out there.”

2. Why do some police investigations into these cases seem plagued by delays and missteps?

Saskatchewan’s chief coroner called an inquest into the death of Nadine Machiskinic shortly after CBC News highlighted questions that her family raised about the initial investigation.

The 29-year-old woman had fallen 10 storeys down a laundry chute in a Regina hotel on Jan. 10, 2015. However, the coroner’s office didn’t notify police about the death until 60 hours later.

Nadine Machiskinic

Nadine Machiskinic, a mother of four, died in January 2015. (Delores Stevenson)

When the Regina Police Service did begin its investigation, officers failed to send samples they had received for toxicological analysis until six months later.

As well, it was one year before investigators tried to track down two men who were seen getting into an elevator with Machiskinic shortly before she died. The men were never found.

An initial autopsy report concluded Machiskinic was too intoxicated to have entered the laundry chute on her own, but a subsequent report cast doubt on that analysis.

3. If new evidence emerges in any of the unresolved cases, does the inquiry commission have the authority or intention to reopen them?

Verna Shabaquay, who also went by the last name Simard, died after falling from the sixth storey of Vancouver’s Regent Hotel on Sept. 16, 2011.

Vancouver police initially treated the 50-year-old woman’s case as suspicious but later determined there was no foul play.

Verna Simard

Verna Shabaquay, who also went by the last name Simard, died at Vancouver’s Regent Hotel in 2011. (Courtesy of Simard family)

A B.C. coroner’s report classified her death as “undetermined” due to “significant inconsistencies in the witness reports around her death, the history of abuse in her relationship.”

The report said Shabaquay had a moderate to heavy level of alcohol intoxication and that “was seen as contributory to her death.”

It also said investigators determined she was involved with a man who was “reportedly violent and physically abusive to her.” That man was in her apartment at the hotel on the day she died.

The report noted Vancouver police “will reopen the case if any new evidence is obtained.”

4. Will the inquiry investigate individual cases in which coroner’s examinations revealed suspicious injuries and circumstances of death?

Family members of Ada Elaine Brown, 41, whose body was found in a hotel room in Prince George, B.C., on April 9, 2001, say they reject official statements that she died of natural causes.

A coroner’s report classified her death as undetermined, even though a post-mortem examination mentioned a possible assault and noted she had black eyes.

The autopsy report said Brown told a doctor prior to her death that she had been assaulted by an unknown female downtown. The report says there was an “unsubstantiated history of an assault five days prior to her death.”

The cause of death was attributed to a subdural hemorrhage. The report said it can neither link the alleged assault to the hemorrhage nor exclude it as a possible cause.

Her family believes a man who was abusive toward Brown was responsible for her death. They have accused police of not investigating her death thoroughly.

5. Will the inquiry address evidence of police disrespect and biases against Indigenous women?

The family of Tanya Marie Hill, 27, who was found dead in her Hamilton, Ont., apartment on March 5, 2011, says they experienced racism during the police investigation.

Her mother, Rhonda Hill-Maracle, alleged that one of the investigators made racist comments.

“What do you expect when you walk into a Native’s apartment with alcohol and drugs all over?” Hill-Maracle claims the investigator said.

The Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario says Hill died of acute alcohol poisoning. But the coroner’s report also suggests Hill’s partner approached Hamilton police and seemed to confess to killing her.

Ultimately, her death was ruled accidental and not requiring further investigation.

The Hamilton Police Service has confirmed it’s not conducting a criminal investigation, and it didn’t respond to CBC’s questions about the alleged confession. It’s not clear how thoroughly the partner was investigated by authorities.

Hill’s family believes she was beaten by someone who was in her apartment that night and left to die. They disagree with the post-mortem report’s finding that there was no evidence of a struggle, citing photographs they have of blood in Hill’s apartment and bruises on her body.

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5 questions for the MMIW inquiry based on CBC’s Unresolved investigation

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