The pre-design phase of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) begins this week in the North, with Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development Minister Carolyn Bennett heading to Yellowknife and Whitehorse to meet with survivors and impacted families.
On Friday, Jan. 8, those survivors and families will provide their input to Bennett, hoping to ensure the inquiry process is “inclusive, respectful and delivers concrete recommendations to prevent violence against Indigenous women and girls.”
It’s the first step in what promises to be a lengthy process — Bennett has signalled it will take “as long as necessary.” But while that promise of a marathon approach has many feeling comforted, some are wondering why it’s kicking off in such a rush.
“There was not a lot of time to get in touch with the families. That’s a big concern,” Alisa Praamsma, executive director of the Native Women’s Association of the NWT, told EDGE about the upcoming meetings.
Although the association is not providing its own recommendations or input for this round, which is reserved for families and survivors, Praamsma said her organization was asked to reach out to the families and facilitate their attendance at the meeting. She says the short notice has been a challenge.
“We were told about it right when Christmas happened,” she says.
Similar concerns were raised by the Whitehorse Aboriginal Women’s Circle, who found out about the meetings on Dec. 31, leaving the organization scrambling to notify families in time.
Still, Praamsma said the Yellowknife event should see a lot of participation from families.
“That’s the most important thing: that they can say what’s on their mind and talk about the major issues that need to be addressed.”
Avoiding B.C.’s mistakes
Putting families at the heart of the inquiry has been a key demand since Trudeau’s Liberals announced its launch in early December. Most importantly, Indigenous leaders have demanded the national inquiry be vastly different from the B.C. government’s own inquest into the disappearance and murders of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside related to the Pickton murders.
Known as the Oppal Inquiry after its lead, Wally Oppal, B.C.’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry was considered a failure almost from its beginning, accused of being too narrow in scope, executed without involvement of the families and Indigenous groups, and far too focused on the police, who gave the majority of interviews.
The greatest condemnation, however, has been directed at the government’s subsequent inaction. Despite the Oppal Inquiry resulting in over 60 recommendations, the B.C. government has so far failed to act on most of them, and was even found to have deleted emails from families and communities concerning the continued lack of safe transportation on Highway 16, known as the Highway of Tears, where at least 18 women have gone missing since 1969.
Designing the inquiry
National Commissions of Inquiry are investigations into “matters of national importance,” carried out by the federal government under the terms of the Inquiries Act. Because the legislation is broad, the federal government has ample discretion and can be flexible and creative in the design.
“This can help to ensure a future inquiry will be a meaningful and sensitive process that includes diverse stakeholders,” notes the Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Women. “However, this also means that early and thorough research and consultation is especially important, as this will help inform the inquiry’s design so that it can facilitate and support a fair, responsive, and effective process.”
While royal commissions, like the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools, are types of inquiries, such commissions are intended to address major human rights violations that occurred in a country’s past. It’s likely the scope and aim of the MMIW will differ significantly, with many demanding stringent accountability measures for police and other service agencies as a result.
The current pre-inquiry design phase is scheduled to last until spring 2016, with meetings across the country and an online survey. Questions will focus on who should lead the inquiry, who should be able to participate, what key issues must be addressed, and how the process should be designed to result in concrete actions.
People are also being asked how cultural practices and ceremonies can be integrated, how families, loved ones and survivors can be best involved, and what supports may be needed for participants.
What it could look like
Similar inquiries have taken between two to five years. According to the Legal Strategy Coalition, proceedings may be open to the public and informal, such as open houses or opportunities to submit written comments. The commission may also decide to keep some proceedings private and confidential.
The commission may also decide to have court-like hearings with witnesses, cross-examination and legal representation, or closed hearings for sensitive information. Such adversarial hearings may require participants to establish how they are affected by the issues addressed in the hearings, or how their participation will further the public interest.
“A commission can use any combination of the above-mentioned types of process,” states the coalition. “It can also design new and unique types of proceeding to meet the needs of the people for whom the inquiry is being carried out.”
Already, the government has created an online survey open to anyone to provide input into the design, while the meetings taking place this week are closed to the public and open only by invite to survivors and families of MMIW.
Bennett has stated the inquiry will be independent from government and led by expert staff, but a key issue will be whether or not funding is available for people to participate. While the government has earmarked a “placeholder” budget line of $40 million over two years for the inquiry, it is likely that much more will be needed to ensure that everyone who wishes to participate will be able to do so.
What it can accomplish
Those calling for an inquiry over the last decade, including international organizations like the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Amnesty International, say a comprehensive, coordinated national response is needed.
According to Amnesty, such a response should not only result in accurate and comprehensive data on MMIW in Canada, but establish calls to action and, perhaps most importantly, a benchmark by which the actions or inactions of government can be measured and held accountable.
While still in the consultation phase, Bennett has noted that an inquiry could accomplish a number of goals, including:
• reviewing the effectiveness of current programs to address those causes;
• identifying support mechanisms to strengthen survivors, families and communities;
• improving the well-being and health of Indigenous peoples;
• developing a National Action Plan on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls;
• getting answers on unsolved cases;
• holding service agencies, include police, accountable.
Need for immediate action
While much of the reaction to the launch of the long-demanded inquiry has been one of comfort and relief, others continue to express concern that Canada is not doing enough in the meantime to address the issues of violence.
Over 30 reports and lists of recommendations on violence against Indigenous women and girls already exist in Canada. Though many are regional and, thus, a far cry from a national action plan, they signal that many answers to preventing violence are already out there.
As Siku Allooloo, a writer and researcher from the NWT, recently co-wrote in , addressing the root causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls will require deep introspection on the part of the Canadian government — something our systems are likely unable to handle without massive reform.
“How can the Canadian state be held accountable for its complicity in colonial gender violence — both past and present — when it is the driving force behind this inquiry? It is crucial that we demand an answer to this question,” Allooloo asks in her piece with Jaskiran Dhillon.
“Bennett has said: ‘The end goal of the inquiry is to find concrete action that will be able to stop this national tragedy.’ If there is to be any hope of this goal being met, the inquiry must be held to account and made to confront the deepest root causes of the crisis. Anything short of this is an affront, will add further injury to indigenous peoples, and is a denial of state culpability.”
For more information on how to participate in the pre-inquiry design process, visit: http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1451921853861/1451921924809