Manitoba, a prairie province with one of Canada’s largest aboriginal populations, has some of the most troubling numbers.
From 1980 to 2012, nearly half (49 percent) of female homicide victims were aboriginal, according to the RCMP report. Aboriginal people comprise 16.7 percent of the population of Manitoba.
Bernadette Smith, a tall, strongly built woman with soft brown eyes, has become a leading voice among aboriginal activists in the province since her own sister, Claudette Osborne, went missing.
Osborne was 21 — three years older than Catcheway — when she disappeared on July 24, 2008.
The circumstances, however, were quite different. Osborne struggled with drug addiction and was involved in prostitution in a rough Winnipeg neighborhood, while Catcheway was living with her parents in a small town, and had plans to apply for her first full-time job.
But the families see a shared root cause — a lack of respect for aboriginal women.
“We’re all just people,” Smith said recently, sitting by her backyard pool in Winnipeg, while her daughter splashed in the water. “We have families, we have a world, and we’re not disposable.”
Smith, an education consultant on aboriginal issues, has been pushing for better social programs geared toward at-risk women that would help them to break away from a cycle of drug addiction and violent relationships.
The RCMP report found that most of the homicides were “committed by men and most of the perpetrators knew their victims — whether as an acquaintance or a spouse.” Twelve percent of the victims were involved in the sex trade.
Smith is optimistic. She said police and government have made strides since her sister went missing.
In recent years, there have been a number of new programs geared toward aboriginal women and youth. Organizations like Ka Ni Kanichihk, based in downtown Winnipeg, offer leadership workshops for aboriginal girls and young women.
There’s also a police liaison who communicates with families, and an adviser on aboriginal women’s issues in the provincial government.
“When my sister went missing there weren’t any services,” Smith said. “You were just given a number. And the media was horrible when she went missing — dismissing her as a drug-addicted sex worker.”
“Women aren’t just on the street because they want to be,” she said. “They all have a story to tell.”
Last December, Smith told her sister’s story before a government committee on violence against aboriginal women.
She explained how Osborne had given birth to a baby girl two weeks before she went missing. Her daughter was taken from her by social services at the hospital.
Osborne had recently moved to a small town outside of Winnipeg with her partner and their son in the hopes of starting fresh, away from the lure of drugs and the sex work that paid for them.
She was enrolled at a drug treatment center and the couple hoped to eventually get their daughter back.
After being separated from her, though, Osborne returned to Winnipeg’s north end, a neighborhood that has struggled with drugs and prostitution.
“The guilt was just too much,” Smith said. “She’d gone back to the drugs, back to the street.”
That night, Osborne called another sister, Tina, telling her she was with a truck driver and felt unsafe.
It was the last they heard from her. The family later discovered she had been at a hotel, but investigators didn’t go there until 10 days after she disappeared. By then, Smith said, the hotel’s video surveillance tape had been written over.
“The evidence was gone,” she said.
Smith still wonders whether quicker action could have helped solve the case.
Cases involving aboriginal women, particularly those with a history of drugs and prostitution, don’t get the same attention, she said.
Despite that, Smith isn’t among those calling for an inquiry. She’s skeptical it would solve the problem.
She recalled the inquiry into the serial killer Robert Pickton in British Columbia. It examined why police were so slow to respond to the disappearance of women — many of them aboriginal — in that area.
“Really not much has come of it and they’ve spent millions of dollars,” she said. “It could be better used.”
On the wall of the Catcheways’ home, surrounded by a collage of photos of their other children, is a portrait of Jennifer alongside the words: “Forever missed but not forgotten.”
While the RCMP say the case remains open, the Catcheways continue their own search. They devote all their free time and money toward the search for their daughter, including the profits from their annual fundraiser.
“I’m getting close to finding her, with or without the police,” said Wilfred, Jennifer’s father.
Wilfred has a plastic bin full of newspaper clippings tracing developments since his daughter’s disappearance, and a stack of documents he said offer clues.
“He’s been collecting evidence,” said Bernice, a Pentecostal minister. “He has his theory.”
She holds out hope she and her husband will achieve closure by at least finding their daughter’s remains.
“If anybody is going to bring her home, it’s going to be her family,” Bernice said.