A dedicated missing persons law would allow for searches to start faster and give police additional tools to try and find people, says an Ontario MPP that helped draft that province’s legislation.

Three years after saying it would introduce a law on missing persons, the NWT government is still working on it.

The legislation came to the forefront due to the ongoing search for Frank Gruben, a Gwich’in Inuvialuit man who was last seen in Fort Smith on May 6.

Since then, the RCMP says they have followed up “on every tip” and, without missing legislation persons, their search is limited to community information.

A man wearing sunglasses sits on a fence during winter.
The last known photo of Frank Gruben in Fort Smith, NWT (Steven Gruben)

Clear triggers

In 2015, Catherine Fife, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, introduced a private member’s bill pushing for missing persons legislation in Ontario.

Fife told The Trailbreakers she was inspired to put forward the bill after one of her constituents said they “hit a brick wall” when trying to find their son.

Similar to the NWT’s current situation, the police could not access medical, financial or communication records without evidence of criminal activity.

Ontario’s bill was ultimately rolled into other legislation and came into effect in 2019.

The law, said Fife, “has some pretty clear indicators” of when it can be used.

“If someone is missing and hasn’t been in contact with someone that they would normally be, that would be a trigger. If it’s reasonable in the circumstances to fear for the person’s safety, this would be a trigger,” she said. “This really accelerates the search for folks.”

Gruben family pushing for legislation

Steven Gruben, Frank’s brother, said he recently met with Justice Minister RJ Simpson about his department’s efforts to create missing persons legislation.

He said he was told the department planned to introduce the legislation sometime in 2024 — but Gruben didn’t want to wait that long.

“I think it’s important not only for our family, but for families that may run into this in the future,” he said.

“At the end of the day, I want to honor my brother and I want families after us to maybe have it a little easier.”

Gruben said a friend of his has created a petition to expedite such a law. It had 713 signatures as of Thursday morning. If enough people sign, Steven said he’s hopeful the Justice department will move up its timeline and get an act together for August this year.

“[Simpson] did say it’s never been done before, but it’s a possibility,” Steven said.

Balancing power and privacy

Simpson previously told CBC one of the difficulties in putting together missing persons legislation is balancing giving police more power while also protecting individual privacy.

But the NWT doesn’t need to look far for templates of how this kind of legislation works.

In addition to Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba all have laws that address missing persons.

“There are jurisdictions who have been working on this for years, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” said Fife.

“The legislation exists, they can adapt it and modify it, but it needs to become the law in order for the police to be able to do their job properly.”

a woman smiling
Catherine Fife, an Ontario MPP, helped push for the province’s missing persons legislation. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Whatever form the law takes, Fife acknowledged there needs to be privacy protections.

In Ontario’s case, she said the law is explicit about limiting the sharing of information.

“For example, if you’re a social worker and you’ve been dealing with a client who perhaps has some serious mental health issues and is possibly suicidal, that information can be shared in confidence with the police, but that information goes nowhere else, ” she said.

There are currently 80 open files of missing persons in the NWT

In an emailed statement, the territory’s justice department said it’s undertaking further engagement with the RCMP and other government departments to ensure the legislation is ready for consideration in the 20th Legislative Assembly.

By zonxe