Ottawa police, along with at least one Indigenous organization in the capital, are welcoming a new bill they say will make it easier to locate missing women.
Bill 175, known as the Safer Ontario Act, was introduced last week. If passed, it would enact the Missing Persons Act, which the provincial government says fulfills a commitment it made in February 2016 to end violence against Indigenous women.
The act would make it easier for police to obtain cellphone and credit card records of missing women, even without evidence that a crime has been committed.
Those expanded powers were included in the recommendations of a coroner’s inquest into the deaths of seven Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay held earlier this year.
According to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, the new measures will allow police in Ontario to “conduct effective missing persons investigations.”
Phone, bank, travel records
The changes would let courts issue warrants allowing police to track phone, banking and travel records of missing people if there’s any concern they may have come to harm. Currently courts will only grant such orders if there’s evidence a crime had taken place.
‘We’re not looking to see how much money people have in five different bank accounts, we’re looking to locate someone and find them safe. End of story.’
– Sgt. Reno Rushford, Ottawa police
“It’s fantastic if the new law opens up the door for quick access to this [data]. We can help find missing people, make sure they are safe and return them to their families,” said Sgt. Reno Rushford, who heads the missing persons unit of the Ottawa Police Service.
Rushford said in the past, social media companies and cellphone providers have voluntarily turned over the records of missing people, but financial institutions have been reluctant.
Critics have also cringed at giving police such intrusive powers, but Rushford said the need to quickly locate missing people who may be in danger should override those concerns.
“If someone is being … held against their will or pushed into human trafficking we want to get to them,” said Rushford “We’re not looking to see how much money people have in five different bank accounts, we’re looking to locate someone and find them safe. End of story.”
Shelter ‘all for it’
Irene Compton, co-founder of Minwaashin Lodge, a support centre for Indigenous women in Ottawa which operates a number of programs including a 22-bed shelter for women escaping abuse, supports the expanded powers — but with a caveat.
“We’re all for it here at Minwaashin Lodge,” Compton said. “On the other hand there are privacy issues, and we hope this new bill doesn’t allow police to use [a missing woman’s] records against her.”
Rushford said right now, even if police receive a tip that a person is being held at a particular address, they can’t enter without evidence of a crime.
“If I know there’s a missing person behind that door, I’d like to be able to look for them without having to jump through hoops,” Rushford said. “If we have reason to go to a particular address, then absolutely we should be able to go in.”