When Manitoba RCMP and the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) announced their Project Devote partnership in 2011 it promised hope for hurting families.
But that promise is now being panned after this week’s release of a suspect in the Nicolle Hands homicide – one of 30 cases the task force is responsible for.
“They’re exploiting missing and murdered women for a paycheque,” said Alaya McIvor, a Winnipeg-based advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) and two-spirited people who lost a cousin to violence in her Manitoba First Nation.
“Project Devote is a waste of time in my eyes.”
McIvor expressed the disappointment following an emotional weekend that saw Project Devote announce an arrest in the 16-year-old Hands’ case and then – not even 48 hours later – release the suspect without charge.
(A man arrested in the Nicolle Hands’ homicide has been released for now. APTN file)
“The arrest of an adult male on March 7, 2020, in relation to the Nicolle Hands homicide was a significant development after an 18-month investigation,” noted Cpl. Julie Courchaine in an email.
“We continue to share information on this homicide with the public and the media as we want to remain open and transparent on the progress of the investigation.”
Hands was a 32-year-old mother of three who was fatally stabbed in her North End Winnipeg apartment in October 2003. She is one of 20 Indigenous women and girls on the Project Devote cold case list.
Sheila North, also an advocate for MMIWG families, said grieving relatives and friends deserve more than what Project Devote has delivered in nine years.
“They should be disbanded and redirect the resources,” she told APTN News Wednesday.
North said the theme of Project Devote, with its eight city officers, six RCMP officers and six civilians, has been a consistent lack of results.
“They have a lack of success, a lack of progress,” she added, as evidenced by the non-arrest in the Hands case.
“That was poorly planned and executed.”
(Sheila North is the former grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak. APTN file)
It’s not the first time Manitoba RCMP have walked back an arrest.
North recalled it happening in the 2004 murder of Divas Boulanger, a 28-year-old, transgendered woman killed in Winnipeg but her body discovered in the neighbouring small city of Portage la Prairie, Man.
A 40-year-old man from Saskatchewan was arrested and then released.
Eventually, Theodore Herntier was charged and convicted of second-degree murder. RCMP Major Crime Services, including Historical Case, Serious Crime and Major Crime units, and the Manitoba Integrated Task Force for Murdered and Missing Women, Portage la Prairie RCMP, and Winnipeg Police Service missing persons unit took the credit.
But Boulanger was not part of Project Devote.
Something McIvor, who, like Boulanger, worked in the sex trade at the time and was an instrumental witness in the case, said would have been a win for the beleaguered task force.
Project Devote characterizes its eight missing and 20 murdered victims as “exploited persons.”
The single case it claims was solved was the murder of Myrna Letandre of Fairford First Nation, whose remains were found buried in a Winnipeg rooming house in 2013. Her boyfriend, Traigo Andretti, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2015, after being arrested in Vancouver for the murder of his wife on Vancouver Island.
It was during the arrest that police there learned about Letandre and notified Project Devote.
After that, Project Devote was pretty quiet. It launched a poster campaign featuring some of the victims, and occasionally called for tips from the public on certain cases.
North suggested the general lack of success is due to the lack of trust between Indigenous peoples on the Prairies and the RCMP, which polices most of Canada’s Indigenous communities.
McIvor said it was more than that.
“They’re cold towards families,” she said of the RCMP’s influence on the task force. “They’re a cold institution. They’re not interested in building relationships.”
Both of those factors and more complaints about police in Canada were shared with the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which collected evidence from 2016-18 about the causes of violence against Indigenous females and why so many cases remain unsolved.
Several police forces – including Winnipeg’s and the RCMP – apologized at the Inquiry for the lack of action and pledged to do better.
But McIvor said announcing an arrest on Saturday and taking it back on a Monday – as what happened with the Hands’ case – shows the RCMP still don’t get it.
(One of the key findings of the Inquiry’s final report was the need to change policing in Canada. APTN file)
“It wasn’t professional, to conduct an arrest and release the suspect,” she said. “I can only imagine that joyous feeling for 48 hours and then it’s back to Square 1.”
Hands mother, Eleanor Hands, couldn’t be reached for comment. And RCMP didn’t respond to a request for an interview to explain what happened. A spokesperson for WPS said it was up to RCMP to speak for Project Devote.
Meanwhile, the day before the arrest, WPS Chief Danny Smyth said his officers would be creating a new model to investigate MMIWG cases going forward. His team would still work with RCMP members on existing Project Devote cases. But in-house they’d consolidate resources from various units, Smyth said, and incorporate meetings with community and grassroots organizations.
McIvor likes the idea.
“(Smyth) has been at the table with the community coalition,” she said. “He understands the community’s drive on this issue.”
North said MMIWG families need an independent office that could be funded with money freed up by disbanding Project Devote.
Some of those funds could also be used to put some of the 231 recommendations from the Inquiry into play, she added.