Indigenous communities, not the RCMP, should be the ones to collect and store their DNA for use in investigating missing persons.

Canada’s use of DNA collection and analysis was expanded in March 2018 through the creation of five new DNA databases. Three were created for humanitarian purposes, and the other two are for criminal investigations. The RCMP National DNA Data Bank (NDDB) manages all five.

Of particular note, especially for Canada’s Indigenous population, was the development of the Relatives of Missing Persons Index, which allows for the voluntary collection of the DNA of close relatives of missing persons. This database was promoted as a potentially useful tool in the ongoing investigation into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The DNA of close relatives could help identify missing persons or human remains.

There is no denying the value of DNA as an investigational tool. However, that value should be considered in the context of the relationship between Indigenous people and the Canadian government. Given the tenuous past and present relationship between Canada’s Indigenous population and the Canadian state, who controls the “genetic identifiers” of Indigenous people and for what purpose should raise questions. It is time for Indigenous people to have greater control over their genetic information and how it is used.

Jessica Kolopenuk argued in Policy Options in September 2017 that new biotechnologies, such as those used with DNA databases, have to be critically examined, given that those technologies hold the potential for abuse in the surveillance and management of Indigenous people. She asked how Indigenous persons can be assured that DNA samples and profiles will not be misused by the state as a tool for further colonial oppression.

DNA collection and profiling are not an exact science. The Relatives of Missing Persons Index database is a mixture of samples from people with various ethnic backgrounds. This mixing alone is known to lower the ability to discriminate between profiles, increasing the error rate and the potential for obtaining a false positive. A false positive result can occur due to the limited number of DNA regions analyzed within the DNA. The problem of false positives is amplified when multiple ethnic groups share similar genetic information due to population migration: Indigenous people in Canada, for instance, are known to share similar genetic information with South American and Eastern Asian ethnic groups. Another group vulnerable to false positives is mixed-race Indigenous individuals.

While the limitations of science should raise some eyebrows, the use of DNA technology by the state has also been questioned in law enforcement and the justice system. It is not uncommon to learn of state agents collecting DNA samples randomly and often without the proper judicial authorizations. The agents collecting DNA samples are eventually the same ones who control the resulting information. This alone should be a cause for concern.

So how do Indigenous people preserve the utility of this tool for investigating missing persons while ensuring that the information collected and stored cannot be misused, even accidentally, by the state? The answer is to have members of the Indigenous community collect, control and store their own DNA profiles, by creating a community-controlled Indigenous-specific DNA database.

The first step is to document what information an individual wishes to disclose. For example, people who want to help populate a database (the more samples the better) but who do not want to be involved in finding a missing and murdered loved one could make that choice. Legal processes and documentation would protect their information, which would ultimately be stored by an Indigenous partner agency. Collection of DNA samples could be done in various ways: in person, or by mail with user-friendly DNA kits. Unlike DNA databases that file results according to family names, the sample-processing facility would receive only the DNA samples with their barcode IDs attached, without personal identifying information. Individuals and any known relationships to others whose samples are in the database (example: sister of sample AB0009999) would be number-coded, to ensure privacy and prevent biases in the handling of the information.

After a sample is processed, using the same standards as the Centre for Forensic Sciences and the FBI, the leftover DNA could be discarded. The decision on how to discard the processed DNA would rest with the owner of that DNA rather than with the lab processing the DNA sample. Some individuals may request the return of the sample for interment as part of a cultural or religious practice. All the identifying information would be secured by the Indigenous body governing the database, and all communication between state authorities and the sample owners would be screened by the Indigenous body. When a request for information is made by a state authority, the governing body would offer information and guidance on how to obtain appropriate services for the volunteer sample donors and their family. Then the donors would have the option of how and what to share with the state.

Institutional memory is long. The colonial relationship between the Canadian government and Indigenous people has left a culture of mistrust. However, the utility and application of new technologies should not be ignored because of this historical legacy. Instead, we must look for ways of employing new technologies such as DNA profiling in a way that ensures the protection of rights and the autonomy of all Indigenous people and at the same time shuts the door to the potential of abuse, not only now but in the future.

Photo: Shutterstock by Peshkova


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