Authorities take another look at how well indigenous women knew their killers

Special analysis of nearly 6,000 homicide reports done to explore "casual relationship" ties between victims, murderers.

By DAVID BRUSERNews Reporter
JIM RANKINFeature reporter
TANYA TALAGAGlobal Economics Reporter
Fri., Jan. 6, 2017
New categories that more precisely define the relationships between murdered indigenous women and their killers will provide a better picture of the circumstances in which the killings took place.
Previously, the RCMP had been unable to elaborate on “casual relationships” in much detail. This frustrated indigenous leaders and families, who said the lack of clarity led to overly simplistic conclusions about a decades-long tragedy that has attracted global attention.
In the latest Homicide in Canada report by Statistics Canada, a special analysis was done using more than 6,000 police homicide reports from 1980 to 2015.
The analysis, prompted by questions from the Star a year ago, better defines “casual acquaintance” relationships where the victim barely knew, or did not know well, their killer. As a federal inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous girls and women unfolds, it could serve to further dispel perceptions that the vast majority of homicides are committed by people very close to the victim.
In many of the newly reclassified cases, the victims and perpetrators knew each other only as co-substance users just before the homicide. Some of the other new categories of casual acquaintances include boarders not paying rent and couch surfers.
When informed of the new analysis by the Star, a spokesperson for the upcoming national inquiry said it will consider the data.
For the new analysis, Statistics Canada and Department of Justice spent two months poring over the narrative portions of police homicide surveys and identified eight new sub-categories that better defined the nature of the “casual” relationship and may become part of future homicide surveys.
'Whenever a person goes missing or is found murdered, there is very little trust between the families and the police that there will be a proper investigation done,' Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said.
Of the 6,230 female victims of homicide between 1980 and 2015, 748 — or 12 per cent — were reported as having been by a “casual acquaintance” and one-quarter of those female victims were aboriginal. (Statistics Canada uses the term aboriginal to describe indigenous Canadians.)
This co-substance relationship was three times more common among aboriginal female victims of homicide than among non-aboriginal female victims.
Half of the police surveys provided enough information to allow for further analysis of the nature of the “casual acquaintance” relationship.
In 264 cases, or 35 per cent, of the cases reviewed, the researchers felt the “casual” relationship was better defined by the new, more specific categories.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said trying to better classify how women knew their alleged killers is important, but it is secondary to the fact that many murdered and missing indigenous women and girls cases have not been investigated properly.
“Going back 15 years with Rena Fox being found dead here (outside) Thunder Bay and there are a number of cases here in Thunder Bay where women are murdered and there have been no arrests,” Fiddler said. Fox was a 38-year-old mother of four whose body was found on Feb. 28, 2003, near Kakabeka Falls.
“Whenever a person goes missing or is found murdered, there is very little trust between the families and the police that there will be a proper investigation done,” he said.
Bryanne Machimity's mother Rena Fox was believed to be raped and killed outside Thunder Bay, Ont. 
Among the key new findings:
Researchers created a new “casual acquaintance” category called “co-substance user” for homicides where the relationship between victim and perpetrator was “based solely” on both having consumed or used intoxicating substances immediately prior to the killing.
These relationships included those “initiated at house parties, bars, bush parties or during substance abuse on the street,” reads the 23-page report.
Overall, 18 per cent of female victims in the “casual acquaintance” category were killed under these circumstances. Looking solely at indigenous victims, the proportion was much higher, with 67 of 177 victims, or 38 per cent, in the new co-substance category, compared to 68 of 559, or 12 per cent, for non-indigenous victims.
In a statement from Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office, press secretary Scott Bardsley called this finding “significant.”
“The government is committed to working with Indigenous peoples to make real progress on priority issues, including community safety and policing. The findings in this report provide important context for our work.”
Other new “casual acquaintance” categories were created for roommates or boarders, institutional deaths where the victim knew the killer, partners of ex-partners, family friends and casual friends.
Overall, 16 per cent of the “casual acquaintance” files reviewed were reclassified into other, pre-existing relationship categories, such as family member or close friend.
Researchers decided to look at the category because of the fact it represented a “high proportion” of deaths of indigenous women, and gave an opportunity to delve deeper, Leah Mulligan of the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics and co-author of the report, said in a telephone briefing with the Star on Thursday.
This special analysis was done after the Star reported problems with federal statistics that suggested the overwhelming majority of those women were in some sort of relationship with their killers.
The Star built its own database of murdered and missing indigenous women cases and found that this was not true.
The Toronto Star analysis suggested 44 per cent of the women were victims of acquaintances, strangers and serial killers. This finding was based on a Star review of publicly available information on more than 750 murder cases.
Meanwhile, in a report covering two years of homicide data, the RCMP reported that the offender was known to the victim in every solved homicide of an indigenous woman in RCMP jurisdictions.
And another RCMP report covering many more years of homicide data, the Mounties said the “known to” category includes spouses, family members and acquaintances. The latter category can mean “close friends, neighbours, authority figures, business relationships, criminal relationships and casual acquaintances.”
It also would include serial killers who fleetingly knew their victims. There is no category for serial killer in the national homicide survey. That is something police may not know at the time the survey is completed.
The RCMP was unable to comment on the new analysis in time for publication.