It was nearly a decade ago that Sue Caribou’s family gathered at a landfill in Winnipeg as police began to search for the remains of her missing niece Tanya Nepinak.
“They said they would clean a spot for us where we can see them searching. But instead, when I got there, I got chased away. We didn’t get to like they promised us. They broke a lot of promises,” Caribou said.
It was October 2012, and Caribou says Winnipeg police told her family they would comb through the dump looking for Nepinak’s remains for one month. But the search was called off a little over a week after it started — on what would have been Nepinak’s 32nd birthday.
“It broke my heart. My sister was devastated,” Caribou said.
Nepinak’s remains have never been found. Convicted killer Shawn Lamb was charged in her death in June 2012, but the charges were later stayed.
Nearly 10 years later, officers were once again back at the same landfill this week looking for the remains of another Indigenous woman — Rebecca Contois.
But this time, the family was treated differently.
Winnipeg police said they wanted to take a more culturally sensitive approach in their investigation into Contois’s death.
That involved bringing in the police service’s own support staff for the families, along with community organization Ka Ni Kanichihk.
Before officers began digging through the landfill, there was a sacred fire lit and ceremony in honour of Contois, her loved ones and the searchers. Several Indigenous groups also had counselling support on hand.
Winnipeg police also said they would give timely updates on the investigation to the family through a trauma-informed approach.
Contois, 24, was one of three First Nations women killed in Winnipeg last month within two weeks. Jeremy Anthony Micheal Skibicki has been charged with first-degree murder in connection to her death.
Police announced on Wednesday they had uncovered human remains at the landfill, but they still need to be identified.
That news sent Caribou through a wave of emotion — wondering if there was any chance it could be her niece Tanya.
“I cried. I let my tears go,” she said.
“I hoped that they would go further, right into the Brady landfill and dig.”
The way police appear to be handling this investigation is how Caribou hopes to see Winnipeg police continue — and other forces adopt — when dealing with missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“They wouldn’t have thought about doing a ceremony if it wasn’t for the elders suggesting,” Caribou said.
“It might not mean anything to [police], but to us it means a lot when we do a ceremony first. It’s our traditional way and it helps your spirit being in the positive instead of the negative.”
In December, Winnipeg police also hired a new advocate to work directly with MMIWG families.
Joan Winning wonders why it’s taken so long for police to take these sorts of steps.
Winning’s niece Nicole Daniels was found dead in a snowbank in April 2009 after the 16-year-old left the house with a middle-aged man. Winning says when Daniels was found, her clothes were undone and her body was covered in scrapes and bruises. Police ruled her death not suspicious.
“She was dismissed, that she wasn’t worth investigating,” Winning said.
“It still hurts to this day to talk about it. I’m hurt that they could just dismiss a human being like that. Like she was just a piece of garbage that could be tossed out anywhere.”
Police offered no support to her family at the time, Winning said.
“It’s like they didn’t care. They interviewed a couple of people and that was it.”
Winning says she’s glad to see the effort from Winnipeg police to acknowledge the historical and present-day trauma many Indigenous families are contending with.
“This is something we’ve been needing for a long time — for the police to understand what the families are going through and to be more sensitive to what families are feeling,” she said.
“They’re human beings, too. And they have to understand the loss that a person feels when they lose their loved one.
“I’m sure the ceremonies that they’ve experienced are doing them good as well.”
Michèle Audette, a former commissioner with the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, says these sort of steps from police can help build trust, which can ultimately aid with investigations.
The national inquiry’s final report outlined recommendations for police in dealing with Indigenous victims of crime and their loved ones.
Specifically, it called on police services to review all their practices to ensure they are culturally appropriate, train staff on how to take into consideration the trauma experienced by Indigenous people, and acknowledge the historical and current relationship between Indigenous people and the justice system has largely been one of colonialism, racism and discrimination.
“We ask them to be social workers, liaisons, interpreters. We ask them to be all of that when they weren’t trained to be all of that,” Audette said.
“So this is so important that we bring in that circle the other expertise.”
Audette also wants police forces to be ready ahead of time to act when supports are needed.
“Every week somebody is missing or found dead,” she said. “So if we’re concerned and sensitive about protocols, let’s talk about it before … and not wait for when it’s happening.”
CBC News reached out to the Winnipeg Police Service for further comment about their approach but did not receive a response.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Canadian Police College were also asked if similar initiatives were happening across the country, but neither provided comment.
A professor of social work at the University of Manitoba says so much of police work is about protecting the investigation from anything that could hamper their ability to lay charges.
“Sometimes that narrow focus has rendered police insensitive,” said David Delay, who has studied trauma and violence against women.
So being open to something like an Indigenous-led ceremony at a site that is part of an investigation allows police, “to see it as a practice that they can fully integrate into an investigation — a process that doesn’t in any way thwart a prosecution of somebody who is criminally charged.”
Sue Caribou says many family members like her are open and willing to work even more with police to make sure investigations are done in a way that minimizes further trauma to families.
But there is a long history to mend.
“They’re the ones that took us away from our parents and took us to residential school,” she said.
“It’s hard for us to have that trust with the police.”
Support is available for anyone affected by details of these cases. If you require support, you can contact Ka Ni Kanichihk’s Medicine Bear Counselling, Support and Elder Services at 204-594-6500, ext. 102 or 104, (within Winnipeg) or 1-888-953-5264 (outside Winnipeg).
Support is also available via Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Liaison unit at 1-800-442-0488 or 204-677-1648.