We Need Usable National Data on Missing Persons, Now
In 2017, a submission to the Government of Canada by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that there needs to be an extensive effort made nationally to collect and make accurate and representative data on missing persons publicly available. In this HRW report, it was stressed that it is necessary that the database maintained by the RCMP/National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains (NCMPUR) provides accurate and comprehensive disaggregated data by gender and race at a minimum. Moving forward to 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) made the same recommendations about this database, and noted that no efforts have been made to address these data issues. As a result, the MMIWG Inquiry – along with many others – emphasizes that: 1) we still do not understand the scope of the issue for Indigenous peoples, particularly women and girls, 2) it is impossible to create a reliable body of information to better understand the causes and mechanisms contributing to this issue for Indigenous peoples and communities, and 3) it is significantly difficult for any Indigenous organizations, advocates, community members, researchers, and so on, to collate information that is cognizant of the needs and experiences of Indigenous peoples. Ultimately, that there’s a complete lack of national, useful, and informative data that can actually assist in beginning to prevent or reduce missingness and the related violence affecting Indigenous peoples.
Bluntly, the NCMPUR database is not operating as it should be and, based on what is publicly available, there have been no attempts made to address the recommendations put forth in the MMIWG Inquiry. For instance, their Fast Fact Sheet – 2019 data notes that “It is also important to note that in terms of probable cause, there is some subjectivity in the original CPIC data that populates MC/PUR, and it may not be consistently completed nor maintained by agencies.” This means that there is a disconnect between police reporting and this database. It also brings to light that, because of reporting and other issues, we have no available information on the reasons for why these incidents occur, the contributing factors, whether cases are closed (i.e., resolved) or open, and so on. These issues then generate questions over the futility of the information that is offered. Put another way, the database cannot begin to tackle the recommendations made by the MMIWG inquiry and other reviews because the available data is not accurate alone without attempting to provide disaggregated data.
This deficit has profound implications when recognizing that this means that we do not know, nationally, the reality of missing persons. The recommendations throughout several inquiries and reviews were made in an effort to address data and policy issues that perpetuate a policy vacuum, violence, struggles accessing supports and services, and the lack of prevention and reduction strategies. Yet, the MMIWG Inquiry explicitly notes that “many people are simply left waiting” for their recommendations to be acknowledged and met. Therefore, the database, as it is, is yet another failure that contributes to Canada’s ongoing struggle with missing and murdered Indigenous peoples, along with high rates of missing persons.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the NCMPUR database is entirely unhelpful. I applaud the work they have done so far to contribute to understanding missing persons in Canada with their Fast Fact Sheets and the data they have made publicly available. It is the first of its kind. But, in saying that, it’s really just not enough. There needs to be steps made forward instead of continuing to stay standing in the same place as five or more years ago. Nationally, those involved in the field of missing persons need and want to be doing more to advance this situation, and the only way we can do this is with a clear understanding of the reality of missing persons. While this is a matter brought forth by the MMIWG Inquiry and others alike, it has broader implications than just for Indigenous peoples that cannot be understated. Poor or a complete absence of data can lead to costly policies and programs that are ineffective, inadequate decision-making by policymakers and others, and a perpetuation of the issues of missingness and violence in Canada. So, instead of framing this as a fault and stark criticism of the database, I’m highlighting this as a call-out to move the database forward with more and better information and statistics on missing persons in Canada.
To finish this blog, I want to note two broad solutions that could bring about usable national data on missing persons:
1. Increasing funding for missing persons work: Missing persons is chronically underfunded in Canada. To begin to tackle these issues and recommendations requires funding solutions that can advance the database and its operationality.
2. Strengthen partnerships in the field of missing persons: Bring in researchers and/or experts who are willing/able to splice the data up in other and different ways, assist with data quality, and point out areas for future improvements. There are several who would volunteer their time to commit to this call-out that work with the Missing Persons Research Hub. Not only this but by also including other groups, like police and community organizations, we can begin to understand what is lacking more comprehensively and what can be done to improve the data situation regarding missing persons in Canada.
Writer: Lorna Ferguson
Lorna Ferguson is a Ph.D. Student at the University of Western Ontario, Canada and is the Founder of the Missing Persons Research Hub. Lorna has a broad interest in policing research and developing evidence-based approaches to policing and crime prevention, including issues related to firearms and social media use. Currently, she focuses on police responses to missing person cases.