Missing persons, unidentified remains database in the works, but lack of DNA hinders capabilities: critics

year ago, the RCMP heralded the creation of a public website to gather tips about the hundreds of Jane and John Does across the country and thousands of missing Canadians.

It marked a first and important step: a centre dedicated to unearthing cross-border connections in hard-to-crack cases that haunt family members and detectives alike.

“It’s one of the places where you’d really like to be able to work yourself out of a job,” said Sgt. Lana Prosper of the RCMP Centre of Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains. “If we could identify all of these, then we can offer a lot of closure for a lot of families.”

Since the RCMP centre’s launch of the CanadasMissing.ca website last January, at least four unidentified remains cases — among the trickiest — have been solved. About 150 unidentified remains and nearly 700 missing persons are featured on the site.

One case was resolved merely by combining files from across the country. An RCMP analyst digging through the website noticed similarities between a missing person case from one jurisdiction and an unidentified remains file in another.

“[The analyst] said, ‘You know, I think these two, maybe we should look at them a little more closely’,” said Prosper.

That instinct proved correct.

“We were very excited that day,” Prosper says, laughing. “We were like, ‘Yes!’”

Lack of database ‘frustrating’

However, the centre still lacks a crucial tool in its arsenal: a database of all missing and unidentified remains cases across the country. Technical issues delayed its planned launch to the end of March.

But even once the database is launched, some critics suggest it will be hindered by the lack of a DNA database — a critical tool used by investigators in some parts of Canada and the United States.

“You can imagine it must be frustrating for them,” said Bill Inkster, manager of the B.C. Coroner Service’s identification unit.

The B.C. Coroners Service solved all but one of the cases of the unattached feet discovered in footwear like this boot. (BC Coroners Service)

Inkster’s unit can and does have a DNA database. That plus a broader approach has helped the B.C. special identification unit solve numerous high-profile files in recent years.

Perhaps the most famous is the 10 mysterious feet discovered in B.C. Only two of the feet — both from the same person — remain unidentified.

“And that one’s driving me nuts,” said Inkster, about the feet found in Vancouver’s False Creek. “I swear to God I’m going to find the ID.”

The unit created a multi-disciplinary program that “creates leads” in cases by cross-referencing geographical and biological data.

And the RCMP is watching them closely.

“They really know their stuff out there,” said Prosper. “We rely heavily on the B.C. coroner’s unit to assist us when we’re developing anything, whether it’s our training or our best practices.”

Challenging cases take time

Prosper says the RCMP unit will likely look at the B.C. data system — minus the DNA components — to possibly adapt it on a national level.

Once the national database is up and running, Canadians will get a better picture of how many nameless remains and missing persons actually exist across the country.

Current estimates from coroner’s offices put unidentified remains at about 600, most of which are from Ontario and B.C. About 65,000 people are reported missing every year, but the majority are resolved within days.

When the database is in place, the RCMP centre will also be able to share more information with the U.S.

“A lot of people missing in the United States are unidentified in Canada. And vice versa. So we have to work that out,” said Todd Matthews, a founding member of the volunteer Doe Network who also works for the national centre’s U.S. counterpart.

Though the RCMP centre celebrated a few successes in its first year, experts in the field say it takes years to start seeing solved cases pour in.

Inkster notes it took the B.C. Coroner Service’s identification unit years to get to where it is now, and believes the national centre could have a huge impact.

“There’s a reason that these are unidentified and have not been associated with missing persons. It’s just because these are challenging cases,” said Inkster.

The U.S.-based Matthews agrees.

“You must wait and give things time to work. And it will.”