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Speaking Up for the Missing

Tens of thousands of people go missing in Canada every year. Retired Judge Gloria Epstein, BCom’72, wants to make sure they’re not forgotten.
Robert Gerlsbeck
Gloria Epstein

Gloria Epstein: "In Canada, we don’t pay enough attention to the missing themselves or to the consequences of disappearance."

“Bruce McArthur killed eight people. All were gay or bisexual. All but two were men of colour. All were valued.” So begins “Missing and Missed” a more than 1,200-page report by retired Ontario Court of Appeal Judge Gloria Epstein. It examines how, for years, McArthur, a self-employed landscaper, was able to prey upon Toronto’s Gay Village. His known murder spree lasted from 2010 to 2017, before he was caught, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Epstein wrote the report as head of the Independent Civilian Review into Missing Person Investigations. She was appointed to the post by the Toronto Police Services Board in mid-2018. Nearly three years later, in April 2021, she released her findings, including 151 recommendations that the Toronto Police Service has said it will implement.

The Epstein review was exhaustive. It involved hundreds of interviews with police, as well as members of Toronto’s LGBTQ2S+ communities, sex workers, the homeless and those with mental health challenges, to name a few. There were two related parts to the review’s mandate. It was to examine how Toronto police investigated missing persons (particularly disappearances from Toronto’s diverse communities, focusing on the eight men McArthur murdered and two unrelated cases of women who went missing, whose bodies were later found) and make recommendations for improvement. It was also to examine the relationship between the police and Toronto’s diverse communities and recommend how police could improve the relationships. Judge Epstein also examined approaches to missing person investigations in other parts of Canada and around the world.

In her report, Epstein makes it clear that she would like to see Canada give higher priority to missing person cases including the support of more robust research into why people go missing with such frequency. “I want people to understand that missing people matter,” she told Smith Magazine in a recent interview. Here are edited excerpts from that interview.

Smith Magazine: Your review looked at the cases of eight missing men and two missing women in Toronto. But you discovered a bigger issue. Can you explain?

Epstein: What I found was that in Canada missing persons cases are not considered that big a deal. They are not treated as important. The general view is that if there’s no body, there is no crime. The person either doesn’t want to be found or will return on their own. That’s not how missing persons are regarded in some other countries where the general population and particularly the police treat them as seriously as homicides with commensurate priority and resource allocation. In Canada, we need to understand two things. First, missing persons is a much larger problem than many believe. In 2019, more than 74,000 people were reported missing. In other words, hundreds of disappearances are reported every day. Second, many disappearances have a profound impact—on the person who has gone missing, on his or her family and friends and on society.

How does someone going missing have a wider societal effect?

Very few missing person cases are high-profile and make the news. But many that attract little attention evidence a myriad of serious underlying social problems, problems that often involve or lead to criminal activity. In many situations, family members, such as young teenagers, run away from home because they are victims of abuse. In other cases, predators lure young people away from home to entrap them into the world of sex and/or drug trafficking. And then there are people in marginalized communities who disappear because they have no place to turn and, in desperation, just wander away. In Canada, we don’t pay enough attention to the missing themselves or to the consequences of disappearance. This serious attitudinal problem must change.

Which country is doing a good job dealing with missing persons?

Without question, the United Kingdom. I thoroughly examined the U.K. system and came away impressed with a number of things. First and foremost, they take the report of a person’s disappearance very seriously. Second, the U.K. takes a holistic, collaborative approach to the issue. There, the missing are not just an issue for the police to deal with. Various agencies are involved—government, health, housing and social services, to name just a few. And the police approach the many challenging issues surrounding missing persons with creativity and considerable commitment of resources.

I learned a great deal from the missing and exploitation manager of the Thames Valley Police Force. She is an extraordinarily knowledgeable and experienced officer who has dedicated her career to the missing. As an example of some of her force’s initiatives, she described monthly meetings called STEM [strategic, exploitation and missing] in which the heads of social service agencies and police discuss trends they are seeing around the missing.

In the U.K., there is also significant civilian involvement in the investigation of missing person cases. One area where civilianization has had a considerable impact is in the area of risk assessment. Many U.K. police departments have trained risk assessors who work collaboratively and full time performing this key task. Another initiative that has met with great success involves police forces that have moved toward hiring civilians as missing person co-ordinators. In addition to overseeing investigations, these co-ordinators undertake such tasks as reviewing cases to identify patterns and communicating with loved ones of the missing.

What else is being done in the U.K. that we can learn from?

There is a missing persons charity called Missing People. Founded in 1993, the charity offers help for people who are missing or are at risk of going missing. It is significantly resourced and is therefore in a position to offer professional services to many who are dealing with the challenges of the missing, including the grief-stricken families and other loved ones of those who have disappeared. The charity also funds much-needed research on the many complex issues surrounding missing persons. Missing People is a successful charity. It assists the police. It also does valuable work that no one else, not even the police, are in a position to do.

Would Canada benefit from a similar type of non-profit?

Yes. One of my recommendations to the Toronto Police Services Board is that, together with the federal, provincial and municipal governments, the board should support the creation of a not-for-profit similar to the U.K.’s Missing People. Such an organization could help in several valuable ways. By way of example, it could provide a 24-hour, confidential support line for those who are missing and who don’t want to be found, yet who still want to remain in contact with someone. The person who is ‘missing’ may not want to turn to the police for this type of assistance for fear of being located.

A Canadian missing person not-for-profit organization could also support families of the missing in various ways including acting as a link between the police and the families and friends of the missing by, among other things, keeping the missing’s loved ones up-to-date with steps taken in the investigation. When there is a search for a missing person, the not-for-profit could help co-ordinate a network of community organizations, businesses and people to help in that search.

You found problems with how Toronto police deal with missing persons. But are other places in Canada making progress?

There are a number of cities, like Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Saskatoon, that have taken positive steps. The Winnipeg Police Service has civilian missing persons co-ordinators. Even though the police do the actual investigations, the co-ordinators have considerable involvement to support those efforts. The Saskatoon Police Service is doing interesting work with analytics. Missing person investigations are the third most common type of police investigation in Saskatoon. The police there are working with the Saskatchewan Police Predictive Analytics Lab, the province and the University of Saskatoon, developing predictive models that could help identify young people at risk of running away and find patterns in missing person cases.

Should there be more research done on missing persons?

Absolutely. There’s almost no research done in Canada on this issue. More research will allow us to answer important questions: What are the underlying problems that cause people to go missing? What are possible initiatives to prevent disappearances and/or support the missing and their loved ones during the period of what has appropriately been called ‘ambiguous loss’?

Research can be accomplished in a variety of ways. For example, a police service can partner with academic institutions. I would love to see a missing persons institute in Canada—similar to the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons created at the University of Portsmouth in England. If the Canadian government were to help fund such an organization, it would actually save money long-term through the development of more effective ways to locate those who disappear—better still, to prevent them from disappearing in the first place.

Why don’t marginalized and vulnerable communities get the attention they deserve in missing person cases?

That’s a good question. My research led me to conclude that, initially, the police apply fewer resources to the report of someone’s disappearance from a marginalized and vulnerable community relative to the report of a disappearance of someone from a more mainstream part of Toronto, primarily because of the circumstances surrounding how their disappearance is reported. There are three things to consider here:

One is timing. If someone like you or I were to go missing, it's probable that someone would almost immediately know that we were not where we were supposed to be and report the matter to the police. That’s because we tend to lead patterned, predictable lives. If I failed to show up for dinner, and I didn’t call in an hour or two, someone would be on the phone to the police. But because many in the marginalized and vulnerable communities have less predictable lifestyles, a good deal of time may go by before someone notices their disappearance. Also, when a person from a marginalized and vulnerable community is reported missing, police often have an initial tendency to assume the person just chose to go experience life somewhere else and saw no need to notify anyone.

The second factor is that friends and family of members of marginalized and vulnerable communities are often reluctant to contact the police because of mistrust or their own personal issues with the police such as uncertain immigration status or outstanding charges.

The third factor is what I call ‘noise’. Again, if someone like you or I were to go missing, you can be sure there will be an avalanche of people putting pressure on the police to start a well-resourced investigation. And it is unlikely these people would let up. It goes without saying that the more pressure put on the police, the more likely they are to act. One of the saddest aspects of the review is that Dean Lisowick, one of McArthur’s victims, was not ever reported missing. If no one reported him missing, certainly no one was going to put pressure on the police to step up the investigation into his disappearance.

On the other hand, Andrew Kinsman, who was McArthur’s final victim, had many friends. He did a lot of volunteer work and had a good deal of influence in the gay communities. His friends and loved ones immediately noticed his disappearance and immediately reported it to the police. Mr. Kinsman’s social circle became involved not only by checking the police investigation but by becoming involved themselves—helping search, putting up posters.

Why did you decide to head up the missing persons review? You had to leave the bench to take on this job, after all.

As I look back, I tend to think that my taking up this assignment was meant to be. First, it was offered to me at a time of self-reflection—on the 25th anniversary of my being appointed a judge. Second, the review’s mandate was something with which I had a personal connection given my having decided, years ago, a ground-breaking case in which I recognized the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ protection of equality rights for same-sex relationships. I also thought the review would let me contribute in a manner different from the kind of contribution I had made as a judge. I could sit down at a table and listen to people rather than learn about them through the words of lawyers. I was right. I learned so very much about Toronto’s diverse communities, about the police, about the challenges they both face.

What kind of effect did this work end up having on you?

I used to joke, somewhat seriously, how being a judge made me less judgmental. Over time as a judge, I became more understanding of other people. But being involved in the review increased my insight by an order of magnitude. It was a more direct, more powerful way to learn about the lives of people, particularly those from marginalized and vulnerable communities. I spent real time in the personal space of homeless people and sex workers and people with profound mental health issues. I spent time with people who risked their lives coming to Canada to escape from countries where being gay is a criminal offence. I was forever changed by sitting at a table listening to an intelligent, thoughtful man recount the abuse he suffered in Sri Lanka, his country of birth, followed by his harrowing journey on a ship in which he almost drowned, and his struggles as he made a life in Toronto. Then to work with another such individual for whom I wrote a letter in support of his university application. These strong, resourceful people altered my view of life. I am now much more aware of the challenges that people with such backgrounds go through, the contributions they can and do make, and how we need to do better to support them.

What kind of reaction did your report get from the police and the gay communities?

When I released the report last April, I was ready for the worst. My communications adviser told me to be prepared to be vilified. He said no matter what findings I made, there would be strong disagreement. I reminded him of my history as a judge where I had to make decisions that inevitably left one party or the other unhappy. He replied that in this instance the criticism would be public and personal.

To my amazement, everyone embraced the report—all the findings and all the recommendations. Significantly, the LGBTQ2S+ communities and other diverse communities supported it. The Toronto Police Service and the Toronto Police Services Board supported it. The chief of the Toronto Police Service publicly committed to ensuring that all of the recommendations were implemented. Now, it is early days and there is a great deal to do—we will see. But I am delighted by the support the report received.

You interviewed hundreds of people for this report. Is there one that stood out?

I spoke with a man named Michael Wells, who is the father of Alloura Wells. She was a young trans woman and a sex worker who disappeared in 2017. Much later, her remains were found in a ravine. These remains sat in a morgue for months before being identified.

Alloura and her father and sister came to Toronto from northern Ontario. Michael Wells was homeless but he would find ways to stay in touch with Alloura. At the very least, he would speak with people who had seen her, to check that she was OK. At one point, Mr. Wells realized that no one had seen his daughter in a while. He went to the police. Now, remember that he was homeless—he was not a man who was comfortable going into a police station. But in he went. Sadly, the police treated him with considerable disrespect. They did not even take a report. They effectively just shooed him out of the premises.

I very much wanted to speak with Mr. Wells and, finally, in January of this year—in the thick of the pandemic—I did. We met in a deserted room in a rundown building in downtown Toronto. The two of us sat around an old card table. It was against that background that I experienced the most impactful interview. Mr. Wells was so thoughtful about his life. He was so thoughtful about his daughter. When his 12-year-old son told him, ‘Dad, I think I’m a girl,’ Michael Wells said the following: ‘That is OK. Just be a good person.’ Imagine the power of that moment where I am in the middle of a pandemic in derelict surroundings with a homeless man who possesses such wisdom, such insight, such strength. The investigation into Alloura’s death is still ongoing.