Vancouver police under scrutiny after deaths of multiple young Indigenous women, girls

·3 min read
Sheila Poorman, third from left, bows her head at a rally held on Saturday May 28, 2022 at the Vancouver residence where her daughter's remains were found on April 22, a year and a half after she went missing. (Janella Hamilton/CBC News - image credit)
Sheila Poorman, third from left, bows her head at a rally held on Saturday May 28, 2022 at the Vancouver residence where her daughter's remains were found on April 22, a year and a half after she went missing. (Janella Hamilton/CBC News - image credit)

WARNING: This story discusses violence against Indigenous women and girls, and contains distressing details.

A series of recent deaths and disappearances of young Indigenous women in Vancouver has advocates and families questioning whether police learned many of the lessons — or applied recommendations of numerous reports — from previous tragedies.

The Assembly of First Nations, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, and now the former head of the province's Missing Women Commission of Inquiry have spoken out urging reforms to how police handle missing persons cases.

The latest tragedies include the deaths of 14-year-old Noelle O'Soup, and Kwemcxenalqs (Kwem) Manuel-Gottfriedson, 24.

O'Soup was found dead in an apartment at the corner of Heatley Avenue and Hastings Street on May 1, but is believed to have died some time before — sparking a police code of conduct investigation into one officer who allegedly failed to see her while searching the apartment.

Manuel-Gottfriedson, meanwhile, was found in a building near East Hastings Street and Hawks Avenue last Saturday; her death is subject to a major crimes squad investigation.

Community anger at police erupted earlier this year when the body of Chelsea Poorman was found on the grounds of a Vancouver mansion.

Another Indigenous woman, 20-year-old Tatyanna Harrison, is among those still missing. She was last seen in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on April 22.

LISTEN | Louisa Housty-Jones on recent deaths of Indigenous women, girls in B.C.

Ten years ago this year, former B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal headed the province's Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.

His commission scrutinized how several police forces botched investigations into serial killer Robert Pickton, and numerous reports of missing women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

"The conditions in Downtown Eastside Vancouver are ripe for another Pickton to come to work, because that's exactly what's happening now," Oppal said in an interview Friday on CBC's All Points West.

Oppal's final report recommended 63 reforms, many of them directed and policing and justice agencies.

He said police have made significant improvements in investigating missing persons cases, and in communicating with other law enforcement agencies, as he recommended.

"It's difficult to blame the police, to hold the police responsible for the conditions that exist," he said.

"The three levels of government have to get involved to ensure that the police are more accountable, and are in our communities."

'We need action now'

Last week, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs issued a statement saying "violence against Indigenous women, who are the heartbeat of the DTES community, is escalating like never before," and repeated the organization's call for "urgent" reforms to B.C.'s policing and justice systems.

The organization's secretary-treasurer told CBC News her own cousin is among the growing list of missing Indigenous women in the neighbourhood.

"We do all of these reports, we do all these recommendations … but they're not being acted," said Kukpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson in an interview on CBC's The Early Edition on Friday.

"We need action now. Otherwise, we're going to have more Chelsea Poormans or more Noelle O'Soups, and more like my cousin."

Indigenous people are demanding "more accountability" from the city's police department, said Assembly of First Nations Women's Council representative Louisa Housty-Jones, an elected councillor from Heiltsuk Nation.

LISTEN | Kukpi7 Judy Wilson on rise in violence against Indigenous women, girls

"Indigenous people — and in particular women, children and gender-diverse people — continue to experience extreme violence and death," she said in an interview on CBC's On The Coast on Friday.

"And the tragic death of these individuals in the Downtown Eastside highlight this."

Police say they're 'committed to finding answers'

The Vancouver Police Department declined CBC interview requests. In a statement, the force said it has met with and provided "investigative updates" to families of victims, and takes such cases seriously.

"We are committed to finding answers," said spokesperson Const. Tania Visintin in an email.

The department is asking for anyone with information to come forward.

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