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Montreal’s Iskweu Project launches toll-free number to help find missing women and girls

BY Patrick Quinn Jun 5, 2021

A toll-free tip line in Montreal is now available to help resolve cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). The Iskweu Project, an initiative of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM), is promoting the number – 1-855-547-5938 – with ads on billboards and bus shelters around the city. 

“The relationship between the police and Indigenous peoples is fractured,” stated Nakuset, NWSM executive director. “This campaign will give community members the opportunity to more freely bring forward crucial information about cases of MMIWG2ST+ which Iskweu will use to collaborate with police towards solutions.”

Established in 2017, Iskweu helps the vulnerable access social supports and receive adequate responses from institutions that have historically discriminated against Indigenous peoples. As those who are often targeted by the police are reluctant to contact law enforcement, the tip line provides a confidential way to share information.

The service was partly motivated by the case of Donna Paré, a homeless Inuk woman from Iqaluit who was 32 when she went missing in December 2018. Her disappearance wasn’t reported to police for almost three months. Iskweu coordinators believe that if tip line had been available at the time, it may have led to a better outcome for Paré.

“I would use my work cellphone number as a tip line, to get the public and people living on the street to give me information,” said Iskweu Project Coordinator Jessica Quijano. “We got a lot of tips, and I would forward that information to the police. Then I did it for other missing cases and I was able to locate people. I thought, this is effective because people aren’t hesitating to call.”

Callers with any information or who need assistance about a MMIWG case can either anonymously leave a message or leave their name and number for a call back so Iskweu can follow up at a later time. It’s hoped the tip line will lead to timely responses to disappearances while unearthing clues about Indigenous women, transgender and two-spirit persons who have been missing for years.

“It’s just worth it because there are many cases out there that have never been resolved so we’re hoping one of them will be,” Quijano said. “It’s a good way to start to establish more trust. A lot of times when you support them, they will talk to police. We have a protocol with Iskweu – I can make missing persons’ reports.”

Quijano explained that some people avoid contacting the police because of outstanding warrants or because they have difficulty communicating in French. This initiative advocates for those who don’t feel fear police officers or that they are taken seriously by them. 

“By experience, it’s reassuring to know someone else is accompanying them through the process,” said Iskweu’s research coordinator Janis Qavavauq-Bibeau, who monitors the phone line. “Once we get tips, I’m the bridge between the person and the police. I’ve already done a three-way call. Sometimes I can translate or communicate what they’re trying to say.”

Iskweu recently opened a downtown drop-in centre designed for Indigenous women who have been assaulted, where they can make police reports, access harm-reduction supplies like condoms and clean syringes and get help to access services they may need. Having a safe space to talk privately often helps homeless women overcome their own emotional defenses.

“It’s so hard for a woman who was assaulted to let themselves be vulnerable and cry and tell another person how they felt,” asserted Qavavauq-Bibeau. “Once we’re done, they have to go back to the jungle, the craziness outside. Recently, we did an accompaniment for a woman at our new office, and I saw a huge difference – they felt more supported and less afraid.” 

Iskweu also helps clients find a hotel room or return to their community. Of the 47 cases the organization has addressed so far, all but one were successfully resolved. They’re also seeking answers about five suspicious deaths that were ruled suicides.

“When we hear about a missing case, if it’s dealt with quickly, usually we can locate the person,” Quijano explained. “I’ve located people using my social media and Snapchat – the police don’t go to that level. It just shows how much more effective it is investing in solutions within the community rather than investing in the police.”

Although Quijano says she has a good relationship with Montreal’s Aboriginal liaison officer, she finds she too often must push police to take her reports. With 8,000 officers regularly switching stations in the city, officers working downtown may have little experience with the Indigenous homeless population.

“We need people who actually care and want to resolve these cases,” Quijano argued. “The NWS is part of the coalition to defund the police. We want to invest in housing, health and mental health services, detox centres – things that will prevent Indigenous women from going missing and being murdered. Being an election year, we’re hopeful there will be a political will to stop investing in policing and invest in actual communities.”

While the new tip line has only been active a few weeks, it has already drawn calls from across Canada, which Iskweu attempts to address as much as a small community organization can. Almost two years since the national MMIWG final report, Quijano believes it’s time to reconsider the role of police intervention in cases involving Indigenous women.

“It’s a national crisis,” confirmed Quijano. “We could take this further with a task force to investigate cases. I see what the police does, and I think the community could do so much more if we have actual resources.” 

If you have any information about a missing and/or murdered woman in the Montreal area, you can call 1-855-547-5938 to leave an anonymous voicemail.

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.