We spoke to families of Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women

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After seven years, Tanya Brooks' brain is still missing.

It's being kept as evidence, either in police storage or the medical examiner's freezer — her sister, Vanessa Brooks, doesn't know for sure.

What she does know is she can't lay her sister to rest until she can bury her whole body, as is Mi'kmaq tradition.

Tanya, a 36-year-old Mi'kmaq mother of five, was murdered in Halifax on May 10, 2009. Her case is still unsolved, although people who knew her have about how she died. Police say they need people who know what happened to come forward.

Her murder is part of a national crisis in Canada — one that Patty Hajdu, the federal minister for the status of women, today called "a tragedy and a disgrace" that affects all Canadians.

More than 1,200 Indigenous women and girls — or as many as 4,000 by some estimates — have been murdered or gone missing since 1980. On Wednesday, the Canadian government launched an inquiry into their deaths, and pledged $11.67 million in funding over three years for police liaison units to give families information about their loved ones' cases.

Related: Critics say Canada's inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women will be toothless

During pre-inquiry consultations across the country, relatives of the dead and disappeared women said they wanted to know what happened to their loved ones — but police won't tell them information about the cases. Police contend that releasing any information could compromise investigations, and in some cases the family members themselves are suspects.

While Indigenous organizations welcomed the inquiry, critics have also slammed terms of reference that don't focus on the role of police in protecting these women and investigating their cases vigorously enough.

Over the years, Vanessa has called the police investigators on the case, and she's called the medical examiner's office, but she says she's getting the runaround. The police department says it's not their jurisdiction, and the medical examiner's office either passes the buck or doesn't call her back. She's had no luck with victim's services, either.

Vanessa and Tanya kidding around when they were younger. (Photo supplied by family)

Vanessa and Tanya kidding around when they were younger. (Photo supplied by family)

Vanessa and Tanya kidding around when they were younger. (Photo supplied by family)

"I'm just asking for basic information about how to lay my sister to rest after seven years," Vanessa tells VICE News. "That shouldn't be top secret."

To make matters worse, Tanya and Vanessa's mother passed away in September. She told Vanessa her last wish was for Tanya to be buried.

Now, the urns holding their ashes sit side by side in a funeral home. Vanessa can't bury either of them until Tanya's brain is returned to her.

Vanessa doesn't believe the new funding will change a thing. When she asks police for information about the case, they can't tell her much because they don't want to compromise the investigation.

"Anytime I ask, it's always the same answer: We have no leads, or we can't tell you."

Funding for a new liaison won't change anything, she believes.

"What is this liaison, this hypothetical person, what more are they going to be able to tell us?"

"Actions speak louder than words," she said. "Right now it's just a lot of words."

It's a similar story in Winnipeg, where every day after work and on weekends Kyle Kematch speeds onto the Red River in a boat, searching for missing people.


Related: Canada is finally confronting why 1,200 Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered

He's the co-founder of a group of volunteers called Drag the Red who use makeshift gear to drag the bottom of the river, hoping a bone or body part will snag the line, and they can pull it up. Families with missing relatives contact Kyle out of desperation.

Five years ago, Kyle's sister Amber disappeared.

Amber Rose Marie Guiboche was a 20-year-old outgoing party girl who loved meeting new people, Kyle said. The two siblings first bonded when they lost their mother and sister. Their sister overdosed, and the same year their mother jumped off one of the bridges over the Red River.

On November 10, 2010, Amber was spotted climbing into a red pickup truck in a low-income Winnipeg neighborhood. That was the last time anyone saw her.

Kyle has been pushing police for information about his sister's case, but they won't tell him much.

What they did tell him is that she was a sex worker — a fact he worries will make people think she deserved to die.

"It's not even been proven, but that's what they'll say. When they say that, people look and they say, well she deserves it."

He doesn't believe the new funding will shed more light on her case.

"They say that they're giving $12 million towards giving information to the families. I believe we're going to be in the same exact spot — they're just going to label my sister as a prostitute. And that's all we're going to keep hearing. And $12 million just to hear that is just a waste of money."

Kyle Kematch on a boat on the Red River, searching for missing people. (VICE News)

Kyle Kematch on a boat on the Red River, searching for missing people. (VICE News)

Kyle Kematch on a boat on the Red River, searching for missing people. (VICE News)

Kyle says police can't tell him information about the case for the same reasons Vanessa cited: they don't want to compromise the case, and they have no idea what happened to her.

The last update on Amber's case was in August 2014, when police released a of a suspect.

"We're going on six years now and they're still at the same spot. [Police liaisons] are not really going to do any good for my family. I'll just continue to keep searching for my sister and everyone else who is missing," said Kyle, who thinks the money is better spent on beefing up police resources.

Meanwhile, Vanessa oscillates between hope and despair for her sister's case.

"My light is not any brighter," she said of the inquiry announcement. "This is not something I can say: 'Oh my god, I'm so happy after everything.' It's just not there."

Added Kyle of the inquiry's final report: "Nothing's going to change, it's just going to end up on a shelf."