It’s been called a “mess” and a “bloody farce” by Indigenous activists and leaders—and that’s just this past month. To say that Canada’s inquiry into our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) is off to a rocky start is an understatement.
While the two-year-long, $53.8 million Inquiry starts community hearings—information-gathering sessions with families, survivors and advocates that will ostensibly help shape its course—today in Whitehorse, many of those who fought for decades to bring the issue to the national stage are openly calling for an overhaul, if not a complete reset.
There is precedent for starting over, says Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer, longtime First Nations advocate and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto. “Look at how wonderfully our Truth and Reconciliation Commission turned out, but it was a massive mess at the beginning and they had to reset with all new commissioners and an all-new process. It took more money and time but it was worth it, because what’s the point of doing it if you’re not going to do it right?”
And according to many who pushed for the Inquiry, it’s not doing much right as it is.
On May 16, The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) produced a report card on the Inquiry, giving it a failing grade in nearly every area, and citing specific concerns about schedules, funding, lack of open communication between families and the public, and failing to proceed in a manner that is “trauma-informed” (meaning, among other considerations, that families and survivors will not be cross-examined, and may share their experiences in a private setting).
“Families have been left in the dark as to what’s going on,” says Francyne Joe, NWAC’s interim president. “This has caused a lack of trust between the Commission and the families and left them wondering if this is the Inquiry that they fought for.”
NWAC’s report card came on the heels of an Open Letter to the Inquiry’s Chief Commissioner, Marion Buller, which called for a “fundamental shift in the direction” of the Inquiry. The letter, crafted by a coalition of activists, advocates, leaders and academics, argued the Inquiry is hamstrung by poor organization and communication, lack of respect for families and the spirits of the dead and disappeared, and leadership that has an insufficient background in the subject matter. (Buller has since responded to the letter—noting off the top that the Inquiry “has not communicated its work in a clear and timely fashion”—but was not available for comment for this piece.)
“We don’t know what the Inquiry is doing. We don’t have a clue,” says Beverly Jacobs, a Six Nations-based lawyer, longtime activist and one of 100+ individuals and organizations who have signed the open letter (she’s also a family member; her cousin Tashina General was murdered in 2008). The one thing that is clear, says Jacobs? The lack of transparency and outreach is hurting and re-traumatizing families. It’s also making some worry that this inquiry is as doomed and dangerously indifferent to Indigenous people as the 2012 Pickton inquiry.
Here are four ways in which the Inquiry, as it currently stands, isn’t working.
Its mandate is too broad
The Inquiry’s goal is to “examine and report on the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada by looking at patterns and underlying factors.” That mandate, however, is its “Achille’s heel,” says Palmater. “It’s so broad that it’s not looking at anything in particular.” One of the things it’s not looking at in a significant way is police racism, corruption and behaviour—one of the most meaningful present-tense issues to survivors and advocates.
“It’s the reason why Indigenous women’s cases are never resolved, because of police racism. And if you’re not actually looking at police racism then you’re not looking at what the problem is—you’re dancing around the outside.” That lack of focus on the present-day realities of Canadian culture worries Palmater, who says the Inquiry runs the risk of looking backward when it really should be focusing on who’s at fault for this crisis.
“We need to know the extent to which police officers rape and abuse Indigenous women and girls all across the country. We have lots of examples of it. But we don’t know just how prevalent it is and how it’s allowed to happen and what we can do to stop it…the Inquiry should be shining a light on some really dark places.”
Its agenda ignores the most vulnerable
The Inquiry is taking a “families first” approach, but some advocates note that this emphasis excludes some of the most vulnerable girls and women. “It’s really concerning because prostitutes generally aren’t connected with family,” says Vancouver-based feminist and First Nations advocate, Fay Blaney, who also notes the irony of focusing on families. “It’s kind of a slap in the face for the colonial founders to say we’re going ‘families first’ when they’ve made every effort to decimate our families.”
More importantly, she says a lot of the harm being done to girls and women is happening because they are sex workers, or don’t have families to protect them. (Blaney herself left home at age 13, fleeing sexual and physical abuse.) Problems within the child welfare system need to be addressed by the Inquiry, she says: “We have several cases of young women that are aging out of the foster-care system and ending up being prostituted.” Blaney cites a 2016 report by The Representative for Children and Families in B.C. that found the majority of kids sexually abused in foster care were Indigenous girls. Again, she says the lack of focus on racism and sex work (and the factors that make the latter a likely option for homeless girls and women) are reminiscent of the conditions that allowed serial killer Robert Pickton to fly under the radar.
It isn’t honouring the commitment to a joint approach
When the Inquiry announced it would involve the Indigenous community—looking to them for information, direction and answers on process and terms—many were hopeful, says Palmater. “We thought, Wow, that’s even better then what we’ve had before.” Despite the commitment to community hearings like the ones currently taking place in Whitehorse, that sense of a joint effort has faded as the Inquiry has struggled to communicate its schedule and processes, and more importantly, hasn’t reached out to all the families that participated in the pre-Inquiry events. “My concern is the lack of respect to the spirits of the women and the families,” says Jacobs, who believes the Inquiry could learn from previous Indigenous-led investigations into MMIWG. “I was thinking about all the things we did with Amnesty and NWAC and the respect we showed for families, which hasn’t been shown in this process.”
Blaney is concerned that this shift reflects a focus on the Indigenous community largely as victims, as opposed to allies armed with important information and expert testimony: “There’s a lot of Indigenous women who can be very instructive to the process.”
It’s not aligned with a palpable culture shift in Canada
Canada is celebrating 150 years of Confederation, but not much has changed when it comes to how Canada’s First People are treated today. (Case in point: many First Nations communities still do not have access to clean drinking water.) Despite the Inquiry and the Trudeau government’s campaign avowal to follow a “nation to nation” relationship “based on recognition, rights, respect, co-operation and partnership,” it’s business as usual as far as Audrey Huntley, a Toronto-based filmmaker and the co-founder of No More Silence, an advocacy group for MMIWG, is concerned. Huntley opposed the Inquiry from the outset and still does, noting that though it’s technically independent, she believes it’s a product of a colonialist culture.
“It’s hard to have faith [in the Inquiry] when the same government is blocking the implementation of a Human Rights Tribunal ruling that Cindy Blackstock [executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society] had to fight 10 years to get, and that would correct the systemic discrimination of First Nations children. It’s particularly hard to stomach when Indigenous youth continue to be found dead in Northern rivers. A government can’t claim to have the best interests of Indigenous people at heart while it blatantly ignores its wishes and approves projects like the Site C Hydro dam in Northern BC and pipelines that are being vehemently opposed.”
Huntley has so little confidence in the Inquiry that, with aid from the Law Foundation of Ontario and Aboriginal Legal Services, she made a 30-minute film to help families and survivors navigate police racism and potentially solve their own cases.
Palmater also believes that the Inquiry should not be the only thing that happens to show we care about Indigenous women and girls. “There is no reason why, during all of this, the federal government can’t be looking at the thousands of recommendations that have been made on how to protect women. There’s no reason why we can’t start investigating police, why we can’t start funding housing and water, and why we can’t deal with foster kids, because we can… We can stop a lot of this in short order.”