OTTAWA — Bittersweet emotions struck Judy Peterson as she sat in the House of Commons visitors’ gallery while Finance Minister Jim Flaherty credited her for the government’s decision to finally create a national missing-persons DNA databank.
The Sidney woman has fought unsuccessfully for more than two decades to find out what happened to her teenage daughter Lindsey Nicholls, who disappeared in 1993.
“It was surreal, like I was in a movie,” Peterson said.
The federal decision comes after years of frustrating negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces over who would pay for the database.
The move could also set up a clash with the Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner, which has expressed concern about the type of database described in Tuesday’s budget.
Peterson said, during a brief interview that included both laughter and tears, that it was “cool” that Flaherty mentioned Lindsey during Tuesday’s budget speech.
Peterson, a guest of the government, was wearing a necklace adorned with an inspirational message of hope given to her this week by her youngest daughter, Kim, an ally in the campaign to find Lindsey and give police better tools to find other missing Canadians.
“I wore it yesterday so Kim could be with me,” Peterson said Wednesday while on her way home to Sidney.
It’s been a long and frustrating struggle for Peterson, who began lobbying for a missing persons databank shortly after the federal government, in 2000, launched the RCMP’s national system to use DNA to solve crimes. It has a databank of the DNA of serious offenders and another with DNA collected at crime scenes.
The databank is described effusively by the RCMP as a “shining example” of how “revolutionary” technology can help make huge strides in bringing criminals to justice and exonerating the innocent.
It has 284,661 DNA profiles of convicted offenders, and 92,397 profiles from crime scenes, according to the RCMP. The databank has helped police in about 30,000 investigations, including more than 2,000 for murder and more than 3,600 for sexual assault.
But when Peterson learned of the databank and sent a sample of Lindsey’s DNA to Ottawa to see if there was any trace of her among crime-scene DNA, she discovered that such a search wasn’t possible.
It was one of many agonizing setbacks since the summer day in 1993 when Lindsey vanished after going for a walk to see some friends near Courtenay.
There had been family tension in the period before her disappearance, after Peterson’s then-husband, RCMP officer Martin Nicholls, was moved by the Mounties from Delta to Comox.
Lindsey wanted to stay and moved in with friends in Delta, later moving to the Island to live in a foster home in Comox.
Tensions had been easing shortly before the disappearance, according to Peterson. In their last telephone call, “I told her I loved her and I missed her, and then I never saw her again,” Peterson told Chatelaine magazine in 2008.
In that same interview, she explained to the magazine the rationale for her relentless campaign.
“If Lindsey is still out there, she’ll know how hard I tried.”
The 1998 legislation that set up the RCMP DNA databank excluded the missing-persons component over concern it would infringe on the privacy rights of people who go “missing” on purpose, such as a spouse fleeing an abusive relationship.
Peterson’s campaign won the endorsement of Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Gary Lunn, who would enter the federal cabinet after Stephen Harper won a minority government in 2006. The idea has also been endorsed by Senate and House of Commons committees, and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
But the idea languished, mostly because the Harper government wanted provinces to share the cost, according to the 2009-10 annual report of the National DNA Data Bank Advisory Committee.
Momentum shifted last summer, 20 years after Lindsey’s disappearance, when Vancouver Island North MP John Duncan, a Conservative, attended a picnic organized by Peterson to mark the anniversary.
Duncan, a cabinet minister and government whip, helped Peterson get a meeting in November with Justice Minister Peter MacKay, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and Kevin Sorenson, minister of state for finance.
That lobbying led directly to Flaherty’s decision Tuesday to commit $8.1 million for five years, starting in 2016-17 when the government is expecting a healthy fiscal surplus, and a further $1.3 million annually thereafter, to create a missing-persons index.
“Changing legislation costs money and takes time. We just needed the political will,” Peterson said diplomatically.
She doesn’t anticipate that the index will lead to any sort of closure in her nightmarish struggle.
“I don’t want anyone to think that the minute this is turned on I’m going to find her,” she said.
She said the B.C. Coroners Service already has its own sophisticated DNA bank that can be used to help trace missing people.
But with a national databank, “I don’t have to worry about whether she might be in Alberta or Saskatchewan or Ontario,” she said.
“My goal is to know 100 per cent that if she is found, that I would know. I don’t have that comfort right now. I just know she’s not in British Columbia.”
Peterson said one of her objectives is to not only help people find missing family and friends, but also help police connect known killers to unsolved crimes by providing the RCMP with the DNA of missing people to compare against crime scene samples.
“My contention is that Lindsey’s DNA could be in the crime-scene index,” perhaps involving a serial murder. “We can identify these people and put them in jail longer and keep them off the street.”
A statement from Chantal Bernier, interim federal privacy commissioner, said that the commission has in the past “strongly” recommended against an index that cross-matches DNA with the RCMP’s existing crime scene and convicted offender databases.
Spokeswoman Valerie Lawton said the commission doesn’t object to a missing-persons database as long as there are strong privacy safeguards and that cross-matching is not allowed.
“Large numbers of people go missing and in many cases this is voluntary with no crime involved,” Lawton said.
“Given the sensitivity of DNA and its potential to reveal sensitive information about individuals and their relatives, effective external oversight would be essential.”