More than a year after it was announced, the Manitoba task force on missing and murdered women still does not officially exist.
An access to information request made to Manitoba Justice revealed "a document to formalize the Integrated Task Force has not yet been completed" as of Oct. 19, 2010.
Manitoba Justice also refused to release any establishing documents related to the task force including an annual budget, a mission statement and the names or position titles of the officers on the task force.
That contradicts a news release the Manitoba government put out 15 months ago that said "the province, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) have formally established a task force to review cases involving missing and murdered women."
Five senior RCMP officers, who agreed to be interviewed at the D Division headquarters on Portage Avenue on the condition their names not be published, said although no document to formalize the task force exists, investigations into 84 cold cases are ongoing and there are nine full-time employees dedicated to the task force. The task force won't provide a list of the 84 cases, saying that could compromise the investigation.
One officer compared the partnership between Winnipeg police and RCMP to a common-law marriage. He said while a formal document may not yet exist, officers from the forces work together and communicate daily, following every lead and turning over every stone.
He admitted there is no budget for the force, but said "if they need something, they get it" from money allocated in the provincial budget.
The officers and communications staff from the RCMP stressed there is no secrecy surrounding the task force.
For Matt Bushby, whose fiancée Claudette Osborne went missing more than two years ago from the North End, news that the task force has yet to be formalized is disheartening.
"I just feel slighted as a person that's been affected by a person that's missing, that the government can come out and say that they've developed this task force, and yet they have done absolutely no work to produce it so that we have some sort of transparency on what they're doing," said Bushby. "Really, to me, I don't believe it exists."
Bushby says task force officials have never contacted his family about Osborne's case. Bushby said he has only dealt with Winnipeg police, who initially handled the case two years ago.
Retired Winnipeg police detective and Winnipeg Free Press columnist Robert Marshall has openly criticized the task force for the way it operates, and says that the biggest problem with the task force is the officers assigned to look into these cases aren't the ones who follow up with the investigation. The real investigation is done by RCMP detachments or the homicide unit, which already have a full plate.
Marshall stressed these cold cases are extremely difficult to solve because they're old and often there is no body.
"Communications is so, so important," he said. "This is obviously the biggest event in a family's life... The loss of somebody so close without explanation, and the idea that these people aren't being kept in the loop, or kept in the loop on a regular basis, just doesn't seem quite right."
The RCMP say the province has a separate group set up to act as a liaison between the task force and families of missing and murdered women. Families direct their questions to the liaison group, which, in turn, forwards the questions to the task force, which then contacts the family's initial police investigator to talk to the family.
Bushby says the province needs to step up and address the problem of missing and murdered women in an open and transparent way.
"It can't be just passed off. When your loved one vanishes, it's unbelievable how difficult it is. You just can't imagine how empty you feel, and you don't have answers when the questions from your little ones come up," said a tearful Bushby, who has two young children with Osborne. "At least when there's a murder or a homicide of some sort, there's finality. The officers tell you what's happened. You have closure. If you can imagine your wound being constantly reopened, that's basically what it's like."