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Simple questions; why won't police answer?

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The Selinger government is resisting a call for a public inquiry into why so many First Nations women and girls have been slain or gone missing over so many years and why police have had so little success in solving the cases.

But there are other kinds of inquiries. And other styles of resistance.

This week, following the arrest of a 52-year-old drifter and career criminal Winnipeg police believe is responsible for the slayings of at least three young aboriginal women over the last 10 months, I made some inquiries of the RCMP and Winnipeg Police Service.

The questions were emailed to the RCMP and copied to the WPS.

That's because after the fall of 2009, when then-justice minister Dave Chomiak gave police extra funding and some added incentive, a joint nine-member task force spent 19 months reviewing the unsolved slaying or missing files. They looked for links among 84 Manitoba cases dating back as far as 1926.

Mind you, before the task force was created, both Winnipeg police Chief Keith McCaskill and RCMP assistant commissioner Bill Robinson had been assuring the justice minister there was no evidence of a serial killer. Then, in May 2011, McCaskill and Robinson announced the task force's now-completed work had given police a "solid basis" for the creation of an investigative team with a suitably sincere-sounding name.

Project Devote.

So it was that, in light of this week's murder charges against an alleged serial killer -- and the keen interest the arrest of Shawn Cameron Lamb created in other police jurisdictions with unsolved cases -- I thought a few questions would be in order. I emailed them Thursday. Just before noon Friday, an RCMP media relations specialist replied:

"Hello Gordon,

"Project Devote is operational and actively investigating files. Our commitment to the victims, their families and the community at large remains steadfast. At present, we are not in a position to provide additional specific information on the activities of the Project. Please refer to the releases you have been provided for reference.

"Have a good weekend... "

I had been looking for a helping hand with some questions. Instead, it felt as if I'd been given the middle finger.

Police wouldn't answer my question about whether the task force was successful in its main mission of identifying any patterns or similarities that suggested a serial killer or killers might be preying on local First Nations females.

They wouldn't share how many slaying or suspicious-death cases involving suspected sex-trade workers remain unsolved or how many missing cases remain open.

They declined to answer whether Project Devote members were involved in the recent arrest of Lamb, or if he had been identified previously by the task force or Project Devote as a person of interest.

They wouldn't even disclose how many officers are attached full time to Project Devote.

Apparently it's all classified.

Mind you, I shouldn't take any of this personally, because really I was making the inquiries on behalf of you, the readers. And especially on behalf of the families of the slain and missing who have complained so often about not getting answers from police. Their complaints are valid -- especially given Robinson's remarks when Project Devote was announced:

"The entire Project Devote team is sensitive to the families' distress and frustration, and understands the families' need for ongoing communication."

In the end, I found at least a partial answer to one of my questions from the people the RCMP have to answer to: their bosses at Manitoba Justice.

It was the seemingly innocuous question about how many cops have been dedicated to Project Devote.

"We understand that the number of team members fluctuates depending on operational needs," a Manitoba Justice department spokesman said in an email late Friday. "Specific info would have to come from the RCMP or WPS."

The problem is they won't say how many officers are exclusively assigned to Project Devote, leaving me wondering if that's because, at least until this week when police got the sniffer dogs out, they had fewer officers designated to investigating the cases than they had when the task force was reviewing them.

And how devoted would that look?

You see, when police services don't respond to simple inquiries, all they're doing is opening the door to bigger ones from a bigger inquiry.

The kind of inquiry that might want to ask just how dedicated police have really been over the decades, when so many of Manitoba's most vulnerable women were slain, went missing and were relegated to the cold-case morgue.

Seemingly forgotten by everyone.

Except those who once loved them.

Interactive map: Manitoba’s missing and murdered women

Red markers indicate locations of slain women, while blue markers indicate the last locations of missing women.  Click on any marker for more details on the case.  Use the controls at top left to zoom in and out on the map, and click and drag on the map to move around.

See this data in a table.

This list is a working document that will be updated frequently. We welcome corrections, additions and criticism. Please email

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 0

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