Advanced DNA could help solve cold cases in Canada, but some cops are slow to embrace it

Advances in DNA technology are credited with solving a growing batch of cold-case murders in the United States, but some Canadian police forces are lagging behind their US counterparts in adopting the new methods.

Experts say a research technique called genetic genealogy — which compares DNA from a crime scene to the vast body of public data uploaded to private platforms like and 23andme — represents the best chance of solving decades-old murders.

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However, some Canadian police officers are slower to adopt it, partly for privacy reasons and because it has yet to be tested before Canada’s court system.

Diane Seguin, chief of biology and DNA at Quebec’s forensic laboratory, said the province is beginning to use genetic genealogy in some “very high-profile cases” in collaboration with police and prosecutors who would be responsible for defense in an eventual trial.

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“We’re just starting to use these technologies in Canada because the legal side isn’t really clear,” Seguin said in an interview this week.

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With genetic genealogy, even a match against a distant relative’s public profile can be used by genealogists to create a family tree and identify the suspect, who can then be investigated using traditional police methods.

The technique has been used a few times in Canada, most notably to help solve the 1984 murder of nine-year-old Christine Jessop in Ontario. That case was solved with the help of Texas-based forensic lab Othram, which also helped identify decades-old remains in Regina and Edmonton.

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However, the genetic genealogy has not yet been conclusively examined by a Canadian court as most of those identified were dead.

The RCMP says they are working to develop a national policy on the use of genetic genealogy that respects Canadian laws, including those protecting privacy. Sergeant Caroline Duval wrote in an email that the RCMP is working with partners, including the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, legal services and the RCMP’s forensic laboratory, to assess the feasibility of using the technique.

“Should a Canadian case with a genealogical DNA component go through the court system, the decisions made may also impact how police continue to advance this investigative technique and the development of national and regional policies,” Duval wrote.

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Meanwhile, local RCMP departments can use commercial lab and database services “provided they comply with the associated terms of service and privacy policies of the currently existing labs,” Duval added.

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Brenda McPhail, director of privacy, technology and surveillance for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says there are numerous privacy concerns related to police use of DNA, which she describes as “our most intimate and sensitive information.”

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People who upload their DNA to public websites often want to know more about their family history and may not be aware of how the information might be used by law enforcement, she said in an interview on Thursday.

Even if they tick a box allowing the information to be made public, “they may provide meaningful consent in a situation where they consent not only to having their information used, but to having their information used in a way that affecting other people in your family? ” She asked.

McPhail said she is aware of a genetic genealogy case in the Ontario courts that is ongoing but could set a precedent. More broadly, she said, there needs to be a conversation about how advanced DNA and other powerful surveillance technologies can be used by police forces and how to balance privacy and a desire to solve crimes.

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Seguin, meanwhile, said the technique might not yield as many results immediately in Canada as it does in the US because Canadians don’t upload their DNA to public websites as often as Americans, meaning investigators have a smaller pool of samples to draw from they can draw.

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Nonetheless, she said the Quebec lab is driving the use of new technology to solve cold cases. Seguin said the lab, which handles all of the forensic work done by police forces across the province, works on about 50 cases of the common cold a year.

Sometimes lab techs are retesting decades-old pieces of evidence with better technology to try to extract DNA — although this is made more difficult by the fact that samples could become contaminated through careless police work, she said.

Seguin said the lab also acquired a phenotyping tool that helps identify likely physical traits like hair, skin and eye color from a DNA sample. The lab has a genealogist who reconstructs family trees, she said, adding that it also creates its own database that matches DNA to specific surnames.

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Though the process might seem slow, she said just because a cold case isn’t resolved immediately doesn’t mean it won’t be.

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Any DNA belonging to a suspect is uploaded to a database and remains permanently on file, awaiting a match — either from a newly arrested offender or a profile uploaded to a public website, Seguin said.

Police in the province continue to solve old crimes through traditional DNA extraction – with the possibility that many more are to come given the rapid technological advances that are constantly taking place, she added.

“From my point of view, we are at a turning point right now,” she said. “We are opening a new era in DNA testing.”

© 2022 The Canadian Press Advanced DNA could help solve cold cases in Canada, but some cops are slow to embrace it


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