WINNIPEG - Justice officials in Manitoba are forming a joint police unit to review dozens of unsolved cases as outrage over the increasing number of missing and murdered women in the province grows louder.
The unit -made up of three RCMP officers, two RCMP analysts and four Winnipeg police officers - will look at unsolved homicide and missing person cases involving women, some of which date back to 1966.
"We recognize that there is a lot of sadness, anxiety and fear out in the communities," RCMP assistant commissioner Bill Robinson said Wednesday.
"The public want this. The police want this. We want to make sure that if someone is operating in our community in a fashion that is causing the deaths of multiple women, we want to get to the bottom of it."
Public pressure has been escalating since the discovery of another young aboriginal woman's body on the outskirts of Winnipeg last Thursday. The death of 18-year-old Hillary Angel Wilson comes one month after her 17-year-old friend, Cherisse Houle, was found dead in a creek near Winnipeg.
The deaths of Wilson and Houle have left friends worried for their own safety and relatives frustrated that no one has been found responsible.
The RCMP and Winnipeg police initially said they were simply reviewing their unsolved cases but are now investigating the disappearances more aggressively. Winnipeg Police Chief Keith McCaskill said the two police forces have been doing a good job so far but they need to maintain public confidence.
"This is a priority right now for the police service," he said.
"We all want answers and we all want closure and we all want a safe community for everyone," added Justice Minister Dave Chomiak.
The announcement inside the legislature basement came as advocates and family members rallied outside on the legislature steps.
Bernadette Smith's 21-year-old sister, Claudette Osborne, has been missing for just over a year. She said there should be at least 16 officers from the RCMP and Winnipeg police dedicated to investigating the growing number of women who have gone missing, many of whom are aboriginal.
Every time police announce a woman's body has been found, Smith said her family wonders if it is Osborne. Families are suffering and they deserve answers, Smith added.
"There are many out there that are waiting," she said. "It's hard to go on with your life when you have someone out there that's missing."
It's been 15 years since Patti Bruneau's sister Darlene was found shot, but her murder is still unsolved.
"How long is it going to take before they actually find the person who is responsible?" she said. "My sister has been gone 15 years and it's still going on. We need to take action and stop it."
Although some called the task force a good first step, many worried it was little more than a public relations move.
"I hope in my heart of hearts that this task force is not superficial," said Raven Thundersky, chair of the Winnipeg chapter of Sisters in Spirit.
"Quite often, when we are faced with a crisis in our community, a lot of time governments will throw money at our issue to keep us quiet. It becomes in name only. Nothing is done. This has gone on for too long. Enough is enough."
Merle Greene, executive director of Mother of Red Nations Women's Council of Manitoba, said there are more than 70 missing or murdered aboriginal women whose cases are unsolved.
The task force must include the involvement of aboriginal groups and the community at large, she added. Many aboriginal groups have information about these missing women which could be helpful to police in their investigation, she said.
"It is a crisis," she said. "I really don't believe the issue has been taken seriously . . . How many more women have to go missing and how many more have to be murdered in order to take it seriously?"
Advocates have said they would like to see a Manitoba task force similar to one set up in British Columbia. That joint unit, made up of RCMP and Vancouver Police, led to the arrest and conviction of Robert Pickton.
The Native Women's Association of Canada estimates there are 520 cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada - the majority occurred in western provinces.