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Former heads of Indigenous group point to where missing, murdered inquiry went wrong

Beverly Jacobs, former president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, speaks at a press conference in 2007.

Cliff Wells/CP

Family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women are calling for a "reset" of the inquiry called to explore the root causes of the tragedy. But what does reset mean?

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls that began its work in September, 2016, has been plagued by resignations – including the departure of one of the five appointed commissioners – and has been accused, among other things, of poor communication, failing to honour Indigenous traditions and general inertia.

The situation has dispirited many of those who spent years lobbying for the inquiry's creation, including former presidents of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC). Today, those same people are questioning whether the process established by the federal Liberal government has any hope of providing the answers they seek.

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The Globe and Mail talked to three past presidents of NWAC who were leaders in the fight to establish the commission – each of whom has lost a female relative to violence – to ask what measures they would take to put the inquiry back on track.

Marilyn Buffalo is a long-time Indigenous activist, was president of NWAC from 1997 to 2000 and has been calling for a national investigation into missing and murdered Indigenous women since her sister was killed in 1982.

Ms. Buffalo said the problems with the inquiry begin with its mandate, which she said is "way too narrow," and the fact that the commissioners have no power to reopen old cases.

The structure is also wrong, she said. The Privy Council Office, which is the administrative support for the Prime Minister and cabinet, has too much power, especially when it comes to the budget, Ms. Buffalo said.

And the commission itself has also made poor decisions, she said, starting with its choice to locate in Vancouver, which is the home province of chief commissioner Marion Buller. The main office should be centrally located, Ms. Buffalo said, and there should be satellite offices in every region

The inquiry's plan to have families living on impoverished First Nations to communicate by e-mail is unrealistic, she said. "They don't have laptops sitting on their kitchen tables. They don't even have kitchen tables … and they are talking about their innermost pain. Do you expect them to do that by computer?"

Terri Brown, a former chief of the Tahltan First Nation in British Columbia, was president of NWAC in the early years of the previous decade and was a co-founder of the Sisters in Spirit campaign for missing and murdered Indigenous women. Her sister, Ada, died in 2001 after a violent assault.

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The first thing that must happen is the resignation of the four remaining commissioners, Ms. Brown said.

"They only had two years and half of that's gone," Ms. Brown said. "I believe that the trustworthiness isn't there now, if it ever was."

The second problem is that the inquiry process, as it is structured, is too much like a court and not enough like the truth-telling circles that are Indigenous tradition, Ms. Brown said.

The process needs to be more trauma-informed, she said.

And, as with Ms. Buffalo, Ms. Brown questions the value of a commission that cannot reopen old cases.

"What's the point, I say, if you can't charge somebody," Ms. Brown said. "You are going to spend $53-million to do another study? They owe us more. They owe the families more. And it is a huge shame. There is so much at stake. I have put my life on the line for this issue."

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Beverley Jacobs is a Mohawk lawyer who was elected president of NWAC in 2004. She was also a co-founder of the Sisters in Spirit campaign and wrote a groundbreaking report about the issue in 2004. In 2008, her 21-year-old cousin, Tashina General, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Her body was later found in a shallow grave.

Ms. Jacobs said the first thing the commissioners needed to do was develop trust of the families of victims. That didn't happen, she said.

The inquiry did create an advisory circle of family members who have the commissioners' ears, Ms. Jacobs said. But many others who have lost loved ones feel ostracized

Ms. Jacobs was among the many signatories to a letter sent to Ms. Buller in May offering suggestions about how the inquiry could be put right.

The letter urged, among other things, for the commissioners to be more independent of the Privy Council Office, for there to be better communications, for there to be better supports for families of victims, for the November deadline for an interim report to be extended and for there to be more consultation with the Indigenous leaders who have been advocating for this process for decades.

Ms. Jacobs said the inquiry must also show respect for the spirits of the women who have been killed. "What does that mean to have ceremony for the dead? What does that mean when we're talking about them? And when should we be talking about them? And how should we be talking about them?" Ms. Jacobs said.

Video: AFN chiefs call for changes to missing and murdered women inquiry (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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