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What Has Gone Wrong With the MMIW Inquiry?

An inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women was a key Liberal campaign promise. So why has it been plagued with so much controversy? Inside a new Maclean's investigation

What went wrong with the Liberal government's MMIW inquiry? Inside the meltdown.

Bella Bresse wipes away a tear as she speaks about her murdered daughter, Evangeline Billy, at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

Last August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government delivered on a key campaign promise: to launch a formal inquiry into the 1,200 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. It had been a long time coming—in a 2014 interview with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper said an inquiry wasn’t “really high on [his government’s] radar,” an admission that (rightfully!) angered Canada’s Indigenous communities, who had been asking for one for years.

But the inquiry turned one on Sept. 1 and a new investigative report by Maclean’s journalists Nancy Macdonald and Meagan Campbell reveals it hasn’t exactly lived up to its promise. The most recent shock—commissioner Marilyn Poitras, a Harvard-trained law professor from the University of Saskatchewan, stepping down—was bad enough. (Poitras represented the Prairies, which have the highest rates of violence against women in the country.) But, as we learn in the Maclean’s report, the inquiry has faced challenges from the beginning.

Here are five of the most shocking revelations from Macdonald and Campbell’s article.

Some believe the scope of the MMIW inquiry was too large from the outset.

“Everyone is feeling the heat as the team attempts to implement a sweeping—some say impossibly broad—mandate to ‘examine the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women, girls and members of the LGBTQ2S community in Canada.’ The soaring task of addressing a vast array of social ills within a two-year mandate quickly got caught on mundane logistical irritants such as outdated Blackberries, buggy computers and a palsied system for claiming expenses[…] Then, in late July, came a bombshell decision by commissioners to examine police conduct, widening the inquiry’s scope enormously.

Onto this unprecedented and sprawling endeavour, the Liberal government slapped a two-year deadline—one that happened to square neatly with the electoral calendar (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, by comparison, was mandated five years, and took almost six; the McDonald Commission, which examined the behaviour of a police security squad in the run-up to the Montreal Olympics, ran four). Critics charge the inquiry is little more than an opportunistic political tool for the Liberals.

Then, in late July, came a bombshell decision by commissioners to examine police conduct, widening the inquiry’s scope enormously.”

The process hasn’t always been sensitive to the families and loved ones of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“To [Sue Montgomery, the founder of #BeenRapedNeverReported and former director of communications for the inquiry], the problem boils down to the fact that the commission’s leadership doesn’t understand the importance of communications: “They don’t get that this is a public inquiry and therefore the public has a right to know about everything. They don’t get that journalists aren’t out to screw them. But they are so afraid to say the wrong thing or get in trouble that they say nothing, which leads people to think they are hiding things.’

Half-truths risk eroding trust further, insiders say. In May, the inquiry announced it was adjourning until the fall because ‘many people’ said they would be hunting or travelling over the summer. Insiders dispute that reasoning; they say summer hearings were postponed because the necessary groundwork hadn’t been completed. ‘We blamed families when it was the organization’s own fault,’ said one. And in July, in the face of mounting public pressure to look at police actions, the inquiry issued a statement announcing it had assembled a “forensic team” that was ‘currently reviewing’ police files. Sources say that work was not yet being done.

Communications with survivors and family members have been similarly criticized. Families say they’re still in the dark over key questions, including: When will hearings be held? And how can I participate? Potential witnesses are asked to call a toll-free number, according to the inquiry website; yet no one staffs those lines. A recorded voice asks callers to leave their contact information. Some families have said it’s taken weeks to get these calls returned.”

There are embarrassing logistical problems

“Challenges on the practical side include the refurbished Dell computers and obsolete phones that staff were using; the travel and other expenses—some dating to November—that have still not been reimbursed; and the fact that, one year into the work of the inquiry, staff spread out over five offices in four separate time zones still don’t have a shared drive or network. The government bars staff from using web-based software like Google Docs, but the Privy Council Office, which governs the inquiry and oversees its budget, can’t seem to figure out how to connect them.”

Sources claim the inquiry is lacking a long-term plan, structure and overarching vision

“Insiders say commissioners are responding to criticism in knee-jerk fashion, pointing to a decision made in February to incorporate Indigenous men and boys in the process. In another case, the leadership decided to adjourn national expert hearings for the summer, only to reverse the move in the face of mounting concern over the pace of progress.

[Marion Buller, the inquiry’s chief commissioner], meanwhile, insists that there is a long-term plan and structure. The first step involves ‘finding the truth,’ through hearings and research and statements, she says. Then, ‘we want to give life to the truth through our reports, both the interim report and the final report. And then we want to honour the truth, through commemoration.’

One source counters that it is not a plan, so much, as what the government asked of the inquiry. Montgomery says what is needed is a detailed road map, with a schedule, dates and locations, all of it made public. ‘People need to know what to expect and need to prepare. Two weeks’ notice isn’t enough for people to prepare, both psychologically and logistically.’

There is no shortage of amazing, insightful women running the inquiry, adds another source, ‘but we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re afraid to admit it.’ Right now, ‘everyone wants this to work. That’s the only thing holding this together.’”

But this work is incredibly important—so the commission has a responsibility to get on track

“The national tragedy [the commission] has been tasked with addressing is ongoing, [unlike previous inquiries]. The TRC dealt with historical abuses. The Gomery commission investigated a kickback scheme involving politicians. The Berger Inquiry looked at the potential impact of a proposed gas pipeline. Outside the MMIW hearings, by contrast, the body count continues to rise.

One of the more shocking reminders of this came just before community hearings in Whitehorse this spring; Wendy Carlick, one of the women slated to attend a March pre-hearing meeting to offer advice to inquiry staff, never showed up. Four days later, she was found murdered. Carlick, whose 19-year-old daughter, Angel, was killed a decade ago, was one of the territory’s most outspoken MMIW advocates; her body was found beside that of a friend, Sarah Macintosh, a member of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, in what police quickly labeled a double homicide.

In Winnipeg, four Indigenous women have been murdered since the inquiry’s launch last September, including two 21-year-olds: Shania Chartrand, of the Lake Manitoba First Nation, and Christine Wood, of the Bunibonibee Cree Nation, who’d been in the city only a few days before she was slain. Two Ontario teens have gone missing. The list goes on.”

Read the rest of Maclean’s investigative report here.

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Meet the Reporter Behind a New, Must-Listen Canadian Crime Podcast 
What 9 Indigenous Activists Want You to Know Before Canada 150