Canada’s missing: Thousands of lost or murdered indigenous women

by January 28, 2016 5:00AM ET

Stories of First Nations women who have been abducted and likely killed, without a trace

Indian Country

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Claudette Osborne-Tyo called for help, but then she vanished.

That is what police know for sure. Ask anything else, and the details start to get fuzzy.

Even before the sun came up that Friday, July 25, 2008, it was already on its way to being a warm, humid day. But it was still dark in the prairie city of Winnipeg.

Osborne-Tyo was at the Lincoln Motor Hotel off Route 180 there. She was with a truck driver from Calgary, and he didn’t want to let her go. He wanted sex. Maybe more.

It was 4 a.m. when she found her way to a phone and dialed one of her sisters, Tina Osborne. The call went straight to voice mail; Osborne had a cheap pay-as-you-go mobile plan, and she was out of money. Osborne-Tyo dialed again and left a message.

She was scared and needed help. There was this man who tried to force himself on her, she said. She wanted to go home.

Osborne wouldn’t hear the message until several days later, when she refilled her phone with money. By then, it would be too late.

Claudette Osborne-Tyo before her disappearance in 2008.

Osborne-Tyo, a 21-year-old mother, was last seen 2 1/2 miles away in the city’s North End. Kids who grow up there call it the hood. A six-minute stumble from the Red River’s western bank. It was about 6:30 in the morning.

Though lost, she is not alone. Osborne-Tyo is one of an estimated 1,181 indigenous women who are missing and were likely murdered in Canada. Campaigners call them stolen sisters — women and girls, ranging in age from 2 to 78, who disappeared under suspicious circumstances and were never found. At least not alive.

For decades, activists called on police and the government for help. But the Conservative government refused to launch an inquiry. Now, under new leadership, it is happening.

Just weeks after being sworn in as Canada’s new Liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau said he plans to launch an inquiry this spring. Though no one knows what it will do yet, the government is meeting with victims’ families, law enforcement and local officials to set a plan of action.

The families of the victims already know what they want: answers.

Osborne-Tyo’s half sister Bernadette Smith.

“How do we allow 1,200 women to go missing or be murdered without something being done?” asked Bernadette Smith, Osborne-Tyo’s half sister. “If these were nonindigenous women, I’m sure something would’ve been done a long, long time ago.”

Indigenous people make up only 4 percent of Canada’s population but 16 percent of its female murder victims — well above the percentage for any other ethnicity. Nowhere is the problem worse than in the province of Manitoba, where indigenous women are victims in 50 percent of female homicides. More indigenous women went missing in Winnipeg than in any other city in the country.

Three other women in Osborne-Tyo’s family went missing there as well.

The United Nations called Canada’s treatment of indigenous women “a grave violation” of human rights in a report released in March 2015. The international Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women found that the Canadian government’s efforts to stop the violence were inadequate.

“We’re six times more likely to walk out our house and never return alive,” said Smith.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) says it solves nearly as many crimes against indigenous women as it solves against women of other races. But the U.N., nongovernmental organizations and victims’ families dispute that claim.

Numerous families said they were rebuffed when they asked police to search for their sister or mother or daughter. “They didn’t do their job,” said Smith. “They said, ‘She’ll show up.’”

When she reported her sister missing, Smith said, police refused to open a case file and investigate for 10 days. That delay lost crucial evidence and the best lead on their main suspect. By the time police started investigating, the hotel had already written over its surveillance footage of Osborne-Tyo and the truck driver.

South of the border, that delay would go against U.S. Department of Justice standards. According to the DOJ, missing person reports should be made within two hours of disappearances for children and no more than 24 hours for anyone above 21 years old. The longer they wait, the greater the likelihood that the victim won’t survive.

“If an investigation does start a week or two after a person’s gone missing, it can be more difficult, as time goes on, to retrace and find that evidence,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Chrismas. He wrote the book “Canadian Policing in the 21st Century” and has worked for the Winnipeg Police Service for more than 25 years, three of which he spent in charge of its missing person unit.

“It’s very easy for people to point the finger at government or the police and say, ‘What are you doing about crime prevention?’ But really, crime prevention isn’t a police responsibility,” he said. “It’s a responsibility that should be shared by all of society.”

Chrismas said it’s a misperception to characterize the city’s police as racist. “Winnipeg handles close to 7,000 missing person investigations per year,” he said. “On a daily basis, officers are coordinating, looking, prioritizing, assessing, bringing in all their experience and training and instinct to try to make the best decision possible with respect to each case.”

He is part of the local police in Winnipeg, home to Canada’s largest indigenous population. Nationwide, most indigenous people fall under the jurisdiction of national law enforcement because they live on Indian reserves

A map of incidents in Winnipeg involving missing indigenous women. Click to open in new window and find out more info.
Maryanne Pearce/Google Fusion Tables

In December of 2015, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson admitted that it has a problem with discrimination.

“There are racists in my police force. I don’t want them to be in my police force,” he told a group of First Nations leaders, adding that reforms are being designed to root out and discipline offenders in its ranks.

In the fall of 2015, dozens of indigenous women said that RCMP officers in rural Quebec took them into remote areas, gave them alcohol and drugs, then attacked or sexually assaulted them. Two years before, RCMP officers were accused of raping indigenous women in British Columbia.

This year, the government and law enforcement started making policy changes to combat the long-standing mistreatment of Canada’s indigenous people and better hold themselves accountable. But activists say it didn’t happen soon enough.

“It’s about time,” responded Dawn Lavell-Harvard, the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, after Paulson’s admission.

Months passed. Then years. Osborne-Tyo never showed up.

On Aug. 17, 2014, the corpse of a young indigenous woman, wrapped in a plastic bag, washed up on the side of the Red River, making national headlines.

“You pray that it’s your sister so that you can bring her home. But you don’t want it to be her, because then she’s never coming home alive,” Smith said, wiping tears from her cheeks.

That body wasn’t Osborne-Tyo’s. It was belonged to Tina Fontaine, 15. “She was just discarded in the river like she was garbage. I think that woke a lot of Canadians up — to say, ‘That could’ve been my daughter,’” said Smith.

It made her wonder if more bodies are there. But the police weren’t looking in the river. She decided family members needed to start searching for themselves.


Winnipeg is almost at the dead center of North America, 220-miles north of Fargo, North Dakota. The land is vacant and flat and cold. Zero degrees Fahrenheit is an average January day. It’s the coldest city of its size in the world. The snaking Red River cuts the city in two, beginning in the northernmost limits, at Lake Winnipeg, meandering all the way down past the roadside sign on the southern end that thanks you for visiting.

Some of Canada’s indigenous people considered the river sacred. Its name was translated from the original Cree name, Miscousipi. For others, the Red River’s name seemed to flow from the blood it carried. A major historic battle took place there between European colonizers and indigenous people. In 1869, it was a symbol of resistance. The Red River Rebellion ended with countless Métis fighters killed and their leader hanged for treason.

In the summer of 2014, advocates counted seven bodies washed up out of the Red River in Winnipeg. In 2015, five corpses.

“If there’s somebody in there, they shouldn’t be,” said Kyle Kematch. “You deserve to go home. You deserve to be buried.”

After Fontaine’s body was found, he answered Smith’s call for help. He too was searching a sister, Amber Guiboche, who disappeared Nov. 10, 2010, five days after her 20th birthday.

Together, Smith and Kematch rallied other members of their community to start dragging the Red.

They built a wide, metal bar with 12 hooks, tied it at the end of a long rope and dropped it off the back of a little motorboat into the river.

“We drag it along the bottom of the river, hoping to snag onto a piece of clothing, maybe body, bones, hair — anything that I can grab on,” explained Kematch. He quit his job for the past two summers to spend all day out on the river, looking for murder victims. Instead he found car hoods. A bumper. Dentures. Cinderblocks. Bloodstained clothes.

“I don't know if I'll find her in the river. But I believe she’ll come out eventually,” he said, of his sister. “Do I believe she’s alive anymore? No. It's been too long already.”

Kyle Kematch’s sister Amber Guiboche has been missing since November 2010.

The group works with forensic scientists from the local university to parse what they pull out of the Red. And then they hand over any evidence to the police.

Of the four Osborne women who have gone missing, three have turned up dead. In the case of 16-year-old Velicia Solomon Osborne, all that was found was an arm and a leg washed up in the river, not far from where Fontaine’s body was found.

Osborne-Tyo is the only missing woman in her family who hasn't surfaced.

“Just because we don’t have a body doesn’t mean there wasn’t a murder,” said Sheilla Leinburd, general counsel for the Department of Justice in Manitoba. She led the successful prosecution of high-profile serial killers who targeted indigenous women.

Only one of the Osborne cases has been closed. For the other three women, the family is still awaiting justice.

“The majority of these cases have not been solved,” said Leinburd. “Arrogance tends to breed contempt. It tends to breed the belief that [the killers] are successful and they can do this time and time again … Murderers are still out there.”

Canada’s national inquiry has been decades in the making. It wasn’t until Fontaine’s body washed up that the violence caught the media’s attention and became a larger issue. Fontaine appeared months after the RCMP released a report that detailed how pervasive the violence was. But advocates have been raising alarms about the attacks since the 1960s.

The missing women’s families struggled to find the support they needed to address the problem. Many Canadians do not view the women as victims. Indigenous people are commonly stereotyped as being promiscuous drug addicts or alcoholics. The sense was that maybe they deserved it.

Smith and Kematch feel their sisters were victimized twice. First by going missing, then by being blamed for it.

Osborne-Tyo was in rehab struggling with an addiction to crack cocaine and had a criminal record. Police said Guiboche was a prostitute — a label that Kematch disputes. In the case of Fontaine, the last time anyone saw her, she was reportedly walking off with a man who offered to pay her for a sex act.

“How does that matter?” asked Leinburd. “I don’t care what they were doing. They were murdered.”

On Jan. 7, 2016, Smith walked into Winnipeg’s Clarion Hotel, off the Trans-Canada highway. She spent the morning in a conference room, meeting with other victims’ family members, each telling their stories. They made presentations to a committee of government officials, activists and police representatives who were tasked with shaping the national inquiry. It was the first of many such meetings that will be held across the country over the next few months.

As far as the government is concerned, Smith finished testifying, and her part was over. She couldn’t even go out on the river because it was frozen over. Sealed with ice for the next few months. The inquiry would come in the spring. Until then, she has to wait.

“They say time heals,” she said after the summit, starting to cry. “It doesn’t get any easier. Especially when you don’t have any answers.”

As soon as the ice thaws, she and Kematch will be back on the boat, dragging — still searching the bottom of the Red River.


Melissa Chan contributed reporting to this article, and Michael Anderson produced the videography.