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Indigenous women’s representatives warn against ‘hard reset’ of MMIW inquiry

By Laura Ryckewaert      

‘If there’s a hard reset then it might cause the stop of the inquiry altogether,’ and would leave families hanging, says Chief Denise Stonefish.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says commissioners on the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women are 'dedicated to finding solutions to address families' concerns.' Her office indicated it couldn't currently comment on whether or when a new commissioner would be named after the resignation of one of the five more than a month ago. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia
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Despite mounting criticism over the progress and process of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, some Indigenous women’s representatives warn that a “hard reset” could result in lost progress on this issue and perhaps be the death knell for the inquiry.

“The many families who participated in the Whitehorse inquiry have been very clear that they are quite upset with some of the calls for a hard reset, as if to say what they’ve contributed already was not of value … and also them questioning why they participated in the first place,” said Jennifer Lord, director of violence prevention and safety at the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

“It’s the first time we’ve done this. We have to remember too, that with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they also had a few restarts until they finally really hit their stride,” she added.

Rather than criticizing, she said those invested in the process need to be “supportive as much as we can … because there are so many families out there that wanted this inquiry to happen, and that’s why we’re here today.”

RCMP data compiled in a 2014 report from more than 300 police forces in Canada found that between 1980 and 2012, a total of 1,181 Indigenous women and girls disappeared or were murdered.

For more than a decade, various groups and advocates have called for a national inquiry into the high volume of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Doing so was a campaign commitment of the new Liberal government, and on Dec. 8, 2015 it launched a two-month pre-inquiry process. On Aug. 3, 2016, the government announced its terms of reference for an independent national inquiry, and named five commissioners: chief commissioner Marion Buller, and commissioners Michèle Audette, Qajaq Robinson, Marilyn Poitras, and Brian Eyolfson.

The commission officially began its work on Sept. 1, 2016 and has been allocated $53.8-million over two years. An interim report is due on Nov. 1 and a final report is expected a year later, with the commission given until Dec. 31, 2018 to fully complete its mandate.

So far, it’s held testimony-gathering hearings in one community, the Yukon capital of Whitehorse, from May 29 to June 1. An amended fall schedule was announced last month, with the next community hearing now set for Sept. 25.

Since its launch, the commission has faced setbacks and criticism from various corners—including multiple open letters criticizing its process from families of victims, and others—which have dominated news headlines about its work.

Criticisms include poor communication from the inquiry, slow progress, use of a colonial and western legalistic process, barriers impeding participation by families of victims, and the need for a more trauma-informed approach.

On July 10, commissioner Marilyn Poitras officially resigned from her role. In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.), she said she was “unable” to perform her duties “with the process designed in its current structure.”

The same day, the Ontario Native Women’s Association indicated that it cannot support the current format and approach of the inquiry, which has left “significant doubts on the ability to achieve” its mandate, said president Dawn Harvard in the open letter.

There have been a number of other commission staff resignations and departures, including executive director Michèle Moreau, director of community engagement, Waneek Horn-Miller, communications adviser Sue Montgomery, manager of community relations Tanya Kappo, and communications director Michael Hutchison.

In a July 11 news release, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) called for a restructuring of the national inquiry’s process to “correct fundamental issues in its framework.”

“The departure of a commissioner, immediately following the resignation of the executive director, is a clear indication that there are unresolved structural issues occurring at the highest levels. It’s time to give families the barrier-free process they deserve,” said NWAC president Francyne Joe in the release.

Specifically, she said there needs to be “a direct departure from the legalistic approach we’ve seen in the allocation of funds and multiple bureaucratic barriers to the participation of families,” including a “needlessly intense vetting process.”

Ms. Lord said the commission was created via the federal Inquiries Act, making it from the beginning “very much a legalized process, a western-colonial process.”

“Perhaps those that were working on this file, this is what they know, the Inquiries Act, and to ask for a real families-led, community-driven process that’s decolonized probably would have taken more than 45 days to put together,” she said, adding NWAC wants to see the commissioners, not the government, take the initiative to “decolonize” the process.

“Find out where families fit in there, where community-driven work fits in there, where the honouring pieces work,” she said.

The NWAC, which had long-advocated for a national inquiry to be held, is producing report cards assessing the inquiry’s progress.

In its most recent, covering January to April 2017, it gave the commission a “fail” in 10 of 15 areas assessed. Among these areas were adherence to timelines, communication of information, development of family-inclusive community relations, development of a trauma-informed process, and more.

Concerns over the progress and process of the national inquiry were raised at the Assembly of First Nations’ (AFN) annual general meeting—which took place July 25 to 27—during a session with two commissioners, Ms. Audette and Mr. Eyolfson, including a call for a “hard reset.”

Ultimately, AFN chiefs didn’t pass a proposed resolution calling for all commissioners to resign, but did pass one calling for the government to reset and amend the inquiry’s mandate.

Denise Stonefish, chief of the Delaware Nation in Ontario and chair of the AFN’s women’s council, said families of victims in attendance wanted a chance to address the commissioners at the AFN’s annual meeting, and she estimated “over half of them raised concerns about the lack of progress” and communication from the commission.

“They’re not alone in sharing those concerns. I do believe across the country you will find that half are asking for a hard reset of the inquiry, and the other half is saying, ‘let’s move on, we’re this far, things happen,’ ” she said.

Ms. Stonefish questioned what calls to halt the commission for a “hard reset” could ultimately mean for its fate.

“If we say, ‘stop,’ and ‘we don’t like what’s going on,’ will the federal government step in and say, ‘OK, that’s it, we tried and it’s not going anywhere. We’re not ready. We’re not capable,’ ” she said.

“Let’s face it, the federal election is coming up soon. What have we got, two years left? … If there’s a hard reset then it might cause the stop of the inquiry altogether.”

An end to the inquiry would leave families who have already taken time to share their experiences hanging, she said.

“They’re going to be left saying, ‘Why did I open up my heart? Why did I share my stories?’ ” said Ms. Stonefish.

Instead, she said she’d like to see the government adjust the inquiry’s mandate, to move away from a legalistic approach and include a look at policing practices and policies, for example. She also highlighted the Privy Council Office, which is responsible for approving use of budgets and other administration, as a barrier to be addressed, and said since February she’s raised the need for a formal extension on work.

“They spent the first year trying to set up the inquiry and its offices and hiring its staff … then it only left a year or less than a year left to hear from the families. And if you’re looking at hearing from over 1,000 families across the country, is there time within that year to really hear all those stories?” she questioned.

In response to questions from The Hill Times, the office of Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett (Toronto-St. Paul’s, Ont.) reaffirmed the government’s commitment to end “this ongoing national tragedy,” and noted “just the other day” the commission “confirmed that they have begun investigation work into policing.”

“The minister met with the commissioners and discussed these issues directly with them. The commissioners have a plan and are dedicated to finding solutions to address families’ concerns. This includes a constant process of learning and adapting as the inquiry progresses,” said the minister’s office.

Ms. Buller has ruled out a hard reset of the inquiry, noting to media in the process that if one is done, “we may or may not even get the inquiry again.”

She was not available for an interview by filing deadline last week.

In response to questions from The Hill Times last week, Caroline Nepton Hotte, a communications adviser to the inquiry, highlighted a letter of support from the Yukon Advisory Council from July 17, stating that a reset would “dishonour the Yukon families who were brave enough to come forward and be the first people to speak to this important work in Canada.”

“There will be more frequent releases of information, updates of social media platforms and the website, interviews given by the chief commissioner. Communications is also looking at ways and means of reaching remote communities or communities that do not have access to the internet,” she said.

Ms. Nepton Hotte indicated the commission is still analysing the possibility of requesting an extension.

It’s unclear whether a new commissioner will or can be appointed without re-establishing the terms of reference, which named the original five commissioners. Ms. Bennett’s office said it couldn’t currently comment. The commission has indicated it’s up to the federal government to decide.

Conservative MP Cathy McLeod (Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo, B.C.), her party’s Indigenous affairs critic, said there have been signs of “some serious issues” with the inquiry for months, but that the government hasn’t been “proactive in dealing with it.”

“Certainly in my opinion, things have escalated into a very, very difficult spot,” she said, adding that while the inquiry is independent, she thinks with the way things are going, the minister has a responsibility to do a “deep analysis” and help put it “back on track.”

Ms. McLeod highlighted a motion she introduced at the House of Commons’ Indigenous and Northern Affairs Committee, calling for the committee to invite the commissioners to provide a briefing on progress. The committee adopted a motion to that affect, in camera, on May 18.

However, Ms. Lord said just as NWAC isn’t supportive of the federal government intervening, it’s “not the place” of the committee to grill commissioners about ongoing work.

“This is exactly the type of colonial, western legal model that we’re trying to avoid,” she said.


The Hill Times

MMIW national inquiry community visits, hearings schedule

Last month, the inquiry released a new schedule for its work, which it said was based on the advice of victims’ families and communities involved:

Week of July 17: Community visit to Smithers, B.C.

Week of July 24: Community visit to Winnipeg

Week of Aug. 7: Community visit to Saskatoon

Week of Aug. 14: Community visits to Halifax, and to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut

Week of Aug. 21: An expert hearing is being held in Winnipeg on Indigenous laws and “decolonizing practices/perspectives.”

Week of Aug. 28: Community visits to Yellowknife, N.W.T., and to Maliotenam, Que.

Week of Sept. 5: Community visit to Edmonton

Week of Sept. 11: Community visit to Thunder Bay, Ont.

Week of Sept. 25: Community hearing in Smithers, B.C.

Week of Oct. 2: An expert hearing is being held in Montreal on human rights, international law, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Week of Oct. 16: Community hearing in Winnipeg.

Week of Oct. 30: Community hearing in Halifax.

Week of Nov. 6: Community hearing in Edmonton.

Week of Nov. 13: Community hearing in Yellowknife, N.W.T.

Week of Nov. 20: Community hearing in Saskatoon.

Week of Nov. 27: Community hearing in Maliotenam, Que.

Week of Dec. 4: Community hearing in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Week of Dec. 11: Community hearing in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

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