TORONTO -- In the coming weeks, four huge trees in Thunder Bay, Ont. will be lit up, glowing with strings of thousands of red lights as part of an ongoing project to raise awareness and funds for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls [MMIWG].

It’s called the Tree of Hope, and was originally conceived a few years ago by Thunder Bay police Const. Sharlene Bourdeau, who is on a mission to change the way her department views and handles these cases.

Bourdeau is a member of the Pays Platt First Nation, and with 28 years on the Thunder Bay police force, she has played a critical role in bridging the gap between First Nations people and police.

She told CTV News that her hope is that soon there is a “federal task force, an an enforceable task force, with 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 go towards encouraging people to come forward with any information that could lead to arrests or solving these cases.

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

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

If a person comes forward to Crime Stoppers with a tip that leads to an arrest, they will receive the $2,000 as well as $48,000 raised by the Tree of Hope donations, which is managed in a separate bank account by Bourdeau. Individuals who aid in investigations and help lead to an arrest will get authorization from Crime Stoppers that will allow them to access the donated $48,000 while still remaining anonymous.

But Bourdeau found out that amount isn’t even enough.

“You know what they make off of women in human trafficking? Over $200,000,” she said. “So […] is somebody willing to come forward for $50,000 when their identity has 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 somebody. As small, as insignificant this piece of evidence may be to somebody else, its huge to a police service,” Bourdeau said.

The relationship between the Indigenous community and the Thunder Bay police force has long been fraught. In 2018, a report by Ontario’s police watchdog found that there was rampant racism in the police force and found that when investigators were looking into Indigenous deaths, there were missteps, stereotyping and discrimination against victims that often led to improper investigations.

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

“We have to look at breaking down this normalized violence that’s projected against Indigenous women and girls everywhere,” McGuire said. “Because it’s so normalized that people don’t even know they’re doing it.”

In 2007, Danita Bigeagle went missing in Regina. She was 22 years old and she’s still missing today. There was little to no media coverage of her disappearance. Her case is echoed in thousands of other cases across the country.

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

“By us lighting the trees, here we are ready to reconciliate, and that’s why we’ve offered an olive branch,” Bourdeau said.

There’s talk of expanding this initiative to other police forces — a poignant reminder of the collaboration and the hope needed to solve these cases. 

With files from Alexandra Mae Jones