Frank Gruben: RCMP say lack of Missing Persons Act holds up search
Police say the absence of a Missing Persons Act in the Northwest Territories is complicating efforts to find Frank Gruben.
Frank, 30, was last seen in Fort Smith on May 6. For more than two weeks, residents have led search efforts on the ground with help from helicopters and boats as a police investigation proceeds.
On Tuesday, RCMP told Cabin Radio they are now “waiting for new information to come in” having exhausted earlier leads.
One barrier to the investigation is an inability to access some records related to Frank that might help police understand what was happening on and around May 6.
The majority of Canadian jurisdictions have missing persons legislation that gives police – in extraordinary circumstances, when trying to find someone reported missing – the authority to demand records related to that person.
The NWT has no such legislation. As a result, RCMP spokesperson Cpl Matt Halstead said on Tuesday, the only way to acquire an order to hand over records would be if there was evidence of criminality.
Where that evidence does not exist, “investigators have to rely on humanitarian requests to the records holders,” Halstead wrote in an email to Cabin Radio.
“The responses that the RCMP have received to date,” Halstead added, “have not provided information that advanced the investigation.”
Halstead said some organizations outright refuse such requests when not backed by a court order, naming Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat as companies that “have denied (and consistently do) the requests from us.”
Banks and telecoms companies “will provide limited information under a humanitarian request,” he wrote.
Details of messages sent or received, or other forms of phone activity, can sometimes help investigators piece together what was taking place at the time someone disappeared. In Frank’s case, however, several friends have reported that he did not own a phone.
‘Questions arose’ about NWT bill
The NWT government committed to creating missing persons legislation as part of its response to the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
At the time, the territory said there were 67 open files in the NWT involving 79 missing people. The GNWT’s action plan responding to the national inquiry said a Missing Persons Act would “facilitate the collection of necessary and timely information by police when conducting a missing persons investigation.”
Caitlin Cleveland, the Kam Lake MLA, had called for the drafting of missing persons legislation in 2020. In October 2022, she followed up in the legislature with justice minister RJ Simpson, who said a bill to create an act would be “hopefully introduced in the winter sitting,” meaning February or March 2023.
But the Department of Justice told Cabin Radio that work to draft the bill is still taking place, and it’s not now expected to become law until some time after the fall’s territorial election.
“As the department worked to develop a draft bill, a number of questions arose which required further engagement with the Department of Health and Social Services and the RCMP,” Department of Justice spokesperson Ngan Trinh wrote by email on Tuesday.
“Further engagement was necessary to ensure that the legislation meets its intended purpose of providing a fair balance between timely police access to information and protection of privacy considerations.
“The department now plans to introduce this bill early in the 20th Assembly.”
Search volunteers ‘exhausted’
Meanwhile, the search for Frank continues – but in reduced form.
Fort Smith town councillor Dana Fergusson, in a video update shared to Facebook on Tuesday, said a small group of people with boats remained actively searching for Frank but most of the ground effort had wound down.
“They’ve run out of people, and resources, and energy. People are just exhausted,” Fergusson said of the search effort. “We’ve exhausted all that we can do from a volunteer position. I’m sorry that this is the update.”
From an RCMP perspective, Halstead said there remained “no update on Mr Gruben’s whereabouts.”
“The last known sighting of Mr Gruben was on May 6, 2023 inside the community of Fort Smith. This is the same sighting that was reported on early in the investigation and there have been no other confirmed sightings of Mr Gruben reported,” Halstead wrote.
“The RCMP will continue to follow up with leads as they come in.”
“I know that someone knows something,” said Fergusson, “and that someone has seen something and they’re just not saying.
“Tell somebody what happened to Frank … so the families can know what’s going on.”