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Blog of the week: The Power of Words

Racism -- and reality-based decisions

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Reality can be a bitter pill for some people to swallow. This appears to be true for a number of people who recently protested at city hall calling for a continued search for the remains of Tanya Nepinak.

As I reported in my Sept. 21 blog post titled The Search for Tanya Nepinak -- Into the Abyss, the Winnipeg Police Service agreed to conduct the search despite a number of problematic factors, which included:

-- Lack of "credible" information regarding a starting point

-- The need to rely on the intuition of aboriginal elders and the departure from a conventional or scientific investigative approach.

-- The microscopic odds against success.

-- The significant drain on police resources.

-- The prohibitive costs related to the search.

When I wrote my original post, I respectfully declined to judge the decision to search. As a father of two daughters, I sympathized with the Nepinak family and believed that the WPS had a moral obligation to conduct the search. I realize this was an emotional response and not an analytical one. While I was not required to consider analytics, the decision-makers certainly were.

Since the search concluded, the WPS has been faced with a public relations nightmare:

-- Accusations from the Nepinak family that the police searched the wrong site. Press coverage focusing on aboriginal outrage and discontentment with the WPS.

-- Relations between law enforcement and the aboriginal community suffering more damage and spiralling downward.

-- The police and city hall are now faced with protest and demands to continue the search.

-- Some of the demands traversing into the all-to-predictable inflammatory accusations that racism can be blamed for our societal failure to locate Tanya's remains.

"If it was a person from a white community, she would have been found already but since she's a native woman, nothing is going to be done and we're here to make a stand," said protestor Morris St. Croix.

Outrageous, divisive comments to be sure, but in reality, St. Croix is right in his suggestion that race has played a significant role in this case -- in a way that is quite opposite from his misguided belief.

I have led dozens of homicide cases and never even remotely entertained the idea of utilizing the services of clairvoyants or seers to assist in these investigations. Can there be any doubt that race factored into the decision to rely on the "intuition" of aboriginal elders to assist with identifying a starting point for the search in this case?

The decision was recently examined by former WPS deputy chief Menno Zacharias in his latest blog post, The Search for Tanya Nepinaks Body: An Exercise in "Relationship Building" Gone Awry.

In his post, Zacharias writes: "The subsequent search of a very small area was not a sound operational decision. The actual search was a token search, an act of going through the motions in the hope that the victim's family and aboriginal leaders would be mollified."

The question people are asking is quite contrary. With the odds against success so astronomically high, would the police have conducted the search if Tanya Nepinak were a Caucasian woman? Many people doubt that they would have.

Popular sentiment suggests that the decision to search was strictly a political one designed to appease or "mollify" the aboriginal community, as Zacharias suggests.

I believe the decision was based on good intentions and was surely made with heightened sensitivity to issues centred around the "r" word.

Sadly, protesters like Morris St. Croix will never be able to see the truth -- not when he is so horribly blinded by his own perceptions of racism.

Racism didn't contribute to the failings of the WPS to locate the remains of homicide victim Jacinto Etecheverry when they searched for his body in the Brady Road Landfill in 2008 and racism didn't contribute to the failure of the WPS to locate the remains of Tanya Nepinak.

The lack of credible, accurate and timely information did.

The reality is that landfill searches are extremely difficult, dangerous and extremely expensive undertakings.In most cases the odds of success are frightfully remote.

I think it's time for the mayor and chief of police to sit down with the Nepinak family and have an honest, reality-based conversation.


James Jewell retired from the Winnipeg Police Service after a 25-year career. Follow his blog at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 28, 2012 A10

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