Nearly a decade ago, Sue Caribou’s family gathered at a landfill in Winnipeg when police began searching for the remains of her missing niece, Tanya Nepinak.
“They said they would clear a spot for us where we could see them searching. But instead, when I got there, they sent me away. We didn’t get to see what they promised us. They broke a lot of promises,” Caribou said.
It was October 2012, and Caribou says Winnipeg police told her family they would be combing the landfill for Nepinak’s remains for one month. But search has been terminated just over a week after it began, on the day Nepinak would have turned 32.
“It broke my heart. My sister was devastated,” Caribou said.
Nepinak’s remains have never been found. Convicted killer Sean Lamb was charged in her death in June 2012, but the charges were later dropped.
Nearly 10 years later, officers returned to the same dump again this week looking for the remains of another indigenous woman, Rebecca Contua.
But this time the family was treated differently.
Winnipeg police said they would like to take a more culturally sensitive approach to the investigation into Contua’s death.
This included the involvement of personal police support staff for families, as well as the public organization Ka Ni Kanichikhk.
Before the officers began to excavate the dump, a sacred fire was lit and a ceremony honoring Contua, her loved ones, and the seekers. Several indigenous groups also received counseling support.
Winnipeg Police also said they will provide the family with updates on the investigation in a timely manner using a trauma-informed approach.
Kontua, 24, was one of three indigenous women killed in Winnipeg last month over the course of two weeks. Jeremy Anthony Michael Skibiki has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with her death.
The police announced on Wednesday that they human remains found at a test site but have yet to be identified.
The news sent Caribou into a wave of emotion – she wondered if there was a chance it could be her niece Tanya.
“I cried. I let the tears go,” she said.
“I was hoping they would go further, straight to the Brady dump and dig.”
The way the police seem to be handling this investigation is how Caribou hopes to see the Winnipeg police continue – and other forces take over – dealing with missing and murdered First Nations women and girls.
“They wouldn’t have thought of holding the ceremony if it wasn’t for the suggestion of the elders,” Caribou said.
“It may mean nothing to [police]but it means a lot to us when we first do the ceremony. This is our traditional way and it helps your spirit to be positive instead of negative.”
In December, Winnipeg Police also hired a new attorney to work directly with the MMIWG families.
Joan Winning wonders why it took so long for the police to take such steps.
Winning’s niece Nicole Daniels was found dead in a snowdrift in April 2009 after the 16-year-old left the house with a middle-aged man. Winning says that when Daniels was found, her clothes were undone and her body was covered in scratches and bruises. The police considered her death not suspicious.
“She was fired because she didn’t deserve an investigation,” Winning said.
“It still hurts me to talk about it. It hurts me that they can just fire a person. It was like she was just a piece of garbage that could be thrown anywhere.”
According to Winning, the police did not offer support to her family at the time.
“As if they didn’t care. They interviewed a couple of people, and that’s it.”
Winning says she is pleased to see the efforts of the Winnipeg police to recognize the historical and contemporary trauma many First Nations families struggle with.
“This is something we have long needed for the police to understand what families are going through and be more responsive to how families feel,” she said.
“They are people too. And they need to understand the loss a person experiences when they lose a loved one.
“I’m sure the ceremonies they’ve experienced also benefit them.”
Michel Odette, former commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, says such moves by the police can help build confidence, which could ultimately help the investigation.
final report of the national investigation provides guidance to the police on how to deal with indigenous victims of crime and their loved ones.
In particular, he called on police services to review all their practices to ensure they are culturally appropriate, educate staff on how to take into account the trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples, and recognize that the historical and current relationship between Indigenous peoples and the justice system in has largely been one of colonialism, racism and discrimination.
“We ask them to be social workers, liaisons, translators. We ask them to be all of this when they have not been trained in all this,” Odette said.
“That’s why it’s so important that we bring other experts into this circle.”
Odette also wants the police force to be ready to act early when support is needed.
“Every week someone goes missing or is found dead,” she said. “So if we’re concerned and sensitive about protocols, let’s talk about it early…and don’t wait for it to happen.”
CBC News reached out to the Winnipeg Police Department for further comment on their approach, but received no response.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Canadian Police College were also asked if similar initiatives were taking place across the country, but neither commented.
A professor of social work at the University of Manitoba says a big part of the police’s job is to protect an investigation from anything that might interfere with their ability to bring charges.
“Sometimes this narrow focus makes the police insensitive,” said David DeLay, who has studied trauma and violence against women.
Thus, being open to something like an indigenous-led ceremony at a location that is part of an investigation allows the police to “see this as a practice that they can fully integrate into an investigation – a process that does not interfere in any way with the prosecution of the person accused. in a criminal offence.”
Sue Caribou says many family members like her are open and willing to work even harder with police to make sure investigations are conducted in a way that minimizes further trauma for families.
But there is a long history to be corrected.
“These are the ones who took us away from our parents and sent us to a boarding school,” she said.
“It’s hard for us to trust the police.”
Support is available to anyone affected by the details of these cases. If you need support, you can contact Ka Ni Kanichihk’s Medicine Bear Counseling, Support and Services for the Elderly at 204-594-6500 ext. 102 or 104 (within Winnipeg) or 1-888-953-5264 (outside Winnipeg).
Support is also available through the Missing and Murdered Manitoba Indigenous Women and Girls Liaison Office Kivatinowi Okimakanak at 1-800-442-0488 or 204-677-1648.