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Indigenous women’s group pulls support from missing and murdered inquiry as commissioner resigns

Marilyn Poitras, one of the commissioners of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, has resigned.

Globe and Mail Update

The success of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women is at risk with the sudden resignation of one of the five commissioners and the decision of a leading First Nations women's group to withdraw its support for the process.

The turmoil, and complaints that the commission has neglected the families of those who have lost loved ones, is fuelling a lack of confidence in the inquiry the federal Liberal government created to find out why so many Indigenous women become victims of violence.

Marilyn Poitras, a Métis professor of law at the University of Saskatchewan, sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday saying her resignation would take place effective on Saturday. "It is clear to me that I am unable to perform my duties as a commissioner with the process in its current structure," Ms. Poitras wrote.

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A few hours later, the Ontario Native Women's Association (ONWA), which had intervenor status at the inquiry, sent an open letter to commissioners saying it could not support the format and approach.

Video: Communication ‘an issue’ for Indigenous women’s inquiry: Bennett (The Canadian Press)

"We no longer have faith that this inquiry will meet its mandate and work responsibly with families and communities," Dawn Harvard, the president of the OWNA, said in the letter.

"The inquiry, as it is currently formed, is leaving us with significant doubts on the ability to achieve their mandate," Dr. Harvard said.

It is a double blow to the process that was the result of years of lobbying by Indigenous activists, who have grown increasingly anxious since hearings with members of victims' families were delayed until the fall. Several staff members have resigned in recent months, including executive director Michele Moreau, and chief commissioner Marion Buller has faced calls to step down.

"The resignation of the commissioner this morning has really shaken the confidence of the women on the ground who were maintaining our faith for a long time that the groundwork was going to be done this summer," Dr. Harvard said in a telephone interview. "Even with the commissioners, there are clearly more troubles there than we thought."

Ms. Poitras said she wanted to talk about the resilience of Indigenous women, but a "colonial" mindset led others to focus on the deficits.

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"After serving on this Commission for the past 10 months, I realized the vision I hold is shared by very few within the National Inquiry – the status quo colonial model of hearings is the path for most," she said in a statement. "Because of this, I strongly feel the Terms of Reference that we were set out to achieve have not been met. This is why it is with great regret and a heavy heart that I resign my position as commissioner."

Sheila North Wilson, the Grand Chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents First Nations in northern Manitoba, called on Tuesday for an overhaul of the inquiry and for the federal government to replace Ms. Buller.

And Bev Jacobs, a former head of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) who was a lead researcher on a groundbreaking 2004 report about missing and murdered women, said the biggest problem has been the lack of outreach to families of victims.

Everyone wants the inquiry to succeed, Ms. Jacobs said.

"But I don't think it can be saved, I really don't. Because there's no trust," she said. "If the rest of the commissioners aren't going to resign, because they know there's a problem … there's going to be problems in the future in getting actual families' support."

News of Ms. Poitras's resignation came as the commissioners met for the first time with families of victims who had co-signed a letter faulting the inquiry for keeping them in the dark.

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"I lost a sister. I look around the room and I see other Indigenous people who've lost someone close to them," said Alex Cywink, whose sister Sonya, from Whitefish River First Nation on Manitoulin Island, was murdered in 1994.

He said the families told the commissioners about their frustrations but he doubted they found a receptive ear.

"I don't think that they were listening because if you listen, you understand it and you act on it," Mr. Cywink said.

"They didn't talk about Marilyn's resignation. Never addressed. Never brought up," one relative, Danielle Ewenin, said after the day-long meeting at a Toronto hotel.

Ms. Ewenin and Mr. Cywink praised Ms. Poitras's decision. "I respect her integrity and I honour her for doing the right thing," Ms. Ewenin said.

She wore a traditional ribbon skirt with a Cree design honouring her sister Eleanor, whose body was found outside Calgary in 1982.

Despite feeling excluded and uninformed, she felt she had no choice but to co-operate in the inquiry.

"If we don't participate, what avenue is there for my sister who was murdered? How is Canada going to bear witness to the crime that was done to her?"

Just last week, Ms. Buller assured Canadians the inquiry was on track and had, in her mind, moved with "lightning speed."

She and the remaining commissioners issued a statement on Tuesday thanking Ms. Poitras for her work, and acknowledging that the inquiry's job is difficult and its deadlines are imposing. "Together, the commissioners and staff of the national inquiry will get through this," the statement said, "and we thank you for your ongoing support. We are listening."

A primary concern of the OWNA and other critics is that that many families of the missing and murdered women have had no communication with the commission since it was formed last Sept. 1.

The OWNA says it has not been contacted despite repeatedly offering the inquiry its support. In her letter, Dr. Harvard also pointed out that many Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, Ont., the first stop on the inquiry's fall schedule, are already shaken by the deaths of a number of young Indigenous people and by racially motivated violence.

"There are approximately 12 Indigenous service organizations in Thunder Bay. To our knowledge, none have been contacted," Dr. Harvard wrote. "Who will be supporting community members after the week of September 10 when the inquiry leaves?"

Ms. Jacobs said her community, the Six Nations of the Grand River in Southwestern Ontario, which is the largest First Nations reserve in Canada, has received no response to its request for a hearing on its territory. "There was no commitment and nobody knows" if it will happen, she said.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told reporters on Tuesday that she met with inquiry commissioners on Monday to discuss the resignation and the growing concerns.

"They really do have the vision, the values, the tools and the plan to get this work done," Dr. Bennett said, but "there is no question that we all agree … that they have got to do a better job communicating their plan and their vision, values, and the way that they're going to get this work done."

Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the work of the inquiry must continue despite the concerns. "We want to make sure that the families and the individuals affected by missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls have a chance to tell their stories," he said. "So we've got to keep moving forward."

Francyne Joe, the interim president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said she wants Ms. Buller to explain how she will "make sure that families feel like this isn't falling apart."

Ms. Joe said her organization has not yet lost all faith in the inquiry. "If we do a reset … it's going to take longer, you are going to have families who become disengaged, and that's not what we have been advocating for these past few decades."

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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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Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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