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TORONTO – Over the next few weeks, four huge trees in Thunder Bay, Ontario. will be lit up, shining with thousands of red string lights as part of an ongoing awareness and fundraising project for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls [MMIWG].

It’s called the Tree of Hope and was originally designed a few years ago by Thunder Bay police officers. Sharlene Bourdeau, whose mission is to change the way her department sees and handles these cases.

Bourdeau is a member of the Pays Platt First Nation, and with 28 years in the Thunder Bay Police Force, she has been instrumental in bridging the gap between First Nations and the police.

She told CTV News that she hopes there will soon be a “federal task force, a binding task force, with the MMIWG.”

People can donate to the Tree of Hope Project to sponsor a light bulb on the trees that represents one of the more than 5,000 Indigenous women and girls who are still missing. The money will be used to encourage people to provide any information that could lead to arrests or the resolution of these cases.

Crime Stoppers is currently offering a $ 2,000 reward to people who call with a tip that leads to an arrest.

“The original idea was to increase the payment to $ 50,000,” Bourdeau said.

If someone shows up to Crime Stoppers with a tip that leads to an arrest, they will receive the $ 2,000 plus the $ 48,000 raised by Tree of Hope donations, which are managed in a bank account. distinct by Bourdeau. Those who help with investigations and help lead an arrest will be granted Crime Stoppers clearance which will allow them to access the donated $ 48,000 while remaining anonymous.

But Bourdeau discovered that this amount is not even enough.

“Do you know what they do with women in human trafficking? Over $ 200,000, ”she said. “So […] Is anyone willing to show up for $ 50,000 when their identity needs to be changed? “

To solve these cases, every bit of information can help.

“Sometimes the police are just waiting for one or two small pieces of evidence that can convict someone. As small, as insignificant as this piece of evidence may be for someone else, it is huge for a police department, ”said Bourdeau.

The relationship between the Aboriginal community and the Thunder Bay Police Force has long been strained. In 2018, a report from the Ontario Police Watchdog found that there was widespread racism within the police force and found that when investigators were investigating Indigenous deaths, there was missteps, stereotypes and discrimination against victims which often led to inappropriate investigations.

Coralee McGuire, executive director of the Ontario Native Women’s Association, says in order to protect Indigenous women and girls, discrimination must be tackled.

“We must seek to break this normalized violence that is projected against Indigenous women and girls around the world,” McGuire said. “Because it’s so standardized that people don’t even know they’re doing it. “

In 2007 Danita Bigeagle went missing in Regina. She was 22 and is still missing today. There has been little to no media coverage of his disappearance. His case is found in thousands of other cases across the country.

At the Tree of Hope, she and so many others are far from forgotten.

“By lighting the trees, here we are ready to be reconciled, and that is why we offered an olive branch,” said Bourdeau.

There is talk of expanding this initiative to other police forces – a poignant reminder of the collaboration and hope needed to resolve these cases.

With files from Alexandra Mae Jones

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