Gone: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Gone: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Organisation: Toronto Star (Canada)

Publication Date: 03/31/2016


Size of team/newsroom:large


We started with a database. Although that belies the painstaking scrutiny team members, which included reporters and librarians, applied to reading and verifying thousands of media reports about murdered and missing indigenous women, each one tolling the magnitude of a shameful national tragedy. Over the course of a year, the reporters took note of each account before sending the data to analyst Andy Bailey and reporter-photographer Jim Rankin, who created a database of 1,129 cases based on public lists stretching back several decades. The data helped us to understand where the women died, how their bodies were discarded, the consequences for the families left behind. From the spreadsheets, stories emerged. • “Known-to” is a statistician’s phrase that covers a wide range of relationships from close friends to spouses to business dealings to casual relationships. The phrase, coupled with comments by the previous minister of aboriginal affairs, had led many to believe that aboriginal women had been murdered by spouses and boyfriends. Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde has called for the definition to be clarified. “It could be the corner store grocery man, or whoever beings milk to the door. It doesn’t necessarily mean the boyfriend.” The RCMP has also claimed that 88 per cent of all aboriginal female homicide cases had been solved; the Star’s analysis suggests a solve rate of 70 per cent. The fine print in the RCMP report says solved cases include those in which the police recommended the prosecutor lay charges but a charge may not have been laid. In December, the Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner agreed that the definition should be changed. • Almost every one knows some one who has been touched by the loss of a sister, daughter, mother, aunt. Some, as in the cases of three sisters from Northern Ontario, unbearably so. Reporter David Bruser gained the trust of the families of Kathleen McGinnis, Sarah Mason and Edith Quagon who discovered for the first time how their mothers and aunts had died. • The quest for closure is beautifully told by Jennifer Wells who spent time on the small boat that relentlessly plies the Red River in search of clues to the fate of their loved ones who have never been found. • Overt racism plagues the small Ontario city of Thunder Bay where as Tanya Talaga reports the mayor has become so overwhelmed with the lack of social services – shelters, housing and addiction centres – he has called in the Guardian Angels to curb racist attacks on the increasingly youthful indigenous population. • The impact of a mother’s murder on the family who survive often ends by creating more victims as Joanna Smith reports. Her story echoes a traditional Cherokee saying: “If you want to defeat a nation, destroy the women first.” The Toronto Star is proud to enter Gone: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in the Data Journalism Award category for investigations.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

There are many public lists of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada, some more detailed than others. The Toronto Star compiled those lists into a single database and then went about verifying as much of the information as possible. Five Star journalists, two Star librarians and a database specialist searched and read through thousands of news stories, obituaries and online legal documents to check the status of cases. New cases were added and some were removed after the research revealed, for example, that a missing woman had been found or that a murdered woman was not indigenous. The Star asked the RCMP in a March, 2014, access request for its list of murdered and missing women, which served as the foundation for a 2014 public report on the issue, titled Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview. It has so far gone unanswered. As of October, 2015, the Star’s research had identified 1,129 cases where an indigenous woman or girl was either murdered, died in suspicious circumstances, or is missing. It is by no means a complete list. In some cases, the Star could not verify details. For those reasons, the Star chose to share an aggregate level analysis of the cases.

Technologies used for this project:

Web scraping and old fashioned database assembly by hand was used initially, followed by an analysis that used Microsoft Excel and Access. To bring some of the findings to life online, geocoding and mapping software were used. In order to compare per capita rates of murdered and missing, the Star pulled indigenous women and girls demographic data by city and town. A launch video included a map of Canada with each of the missing and murdered women and girls represented by a beam of light.
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