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MMIWG inquiry needs a reset. There’s too much at stake

There's a belief system in tech culture that's become so prevalent that it's pretty much a cliché: fail fast, fail often. This does not mean "fail ultimately," of course. It means, in the most generous interpretation, make small mistakes, learn from them and quickly adapt your product to benefit from those lessons. Be nimble and open to change.

Governments aren't as nimble as tech startups, and neither are government inquiries. Bureaucracies are much more unwieldy and difficult to turn, more like dreadnoughts than racing sailboats. But that doesn't mean they can't change course when it's obvious they must.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) is at such a turning point. The inquiry, which is vitally important and well-intentioned, has had an undeniably rocky start. There is division over the nature and severity of the inquiry's flaws, but there's no doubt that many families of missing and murdered women, as well as activists, say that the process no longer has their trust. And trust and good faith from Indigenous communities are vital to this process, otherwise why even bother? You could just reprint various reports and commissions that have been held over the years, which now sit dusty on shelves.

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The good news is that a rocky start does not mean the whole thing will sink: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had a similarly unpromising beginning in 2008, until it was reset in 2009 with new commissioners. It went on to produce a landmark report (whether the government actually acts on its recommendations will be the test of its legacy, but that's the government's responsibility.)

The MMIWG inquiry, looking into the root causes that led to the death or disappearance of at least 1,200 women over the past several decades, began last September, and is supposed to wrap up in December 2018. That's not much time to examine a national tragedy encompassing a history of racism and institutional cruelty. It's an enormously complex undertaking that needs to be rethought in transparent partnership with the families and communities affected.

There have been criticisms over delays to the inquiry's hearings (the first wasn't held until May, in Whitehorse, though there have been many consultations and meetings). Families have complained about a lack of communication, and a legalistic focus that doesn't take Indigenous culture practices into account. They feel shut out.

The inquiry has lost several senior members, including Marilyn Poitras, one of its five commissioners, who resigned in July. "My main concern is that this commission is going down a tried road. And if it worked, we would all be so fixed and healthy by now. It doesn't work," Ms. Poitras told the CBC after her resignation.

This week, a coalition of some 150 activists and family members asked for the inquiry to be completely reset: That is, for the remaining commissioners to step down and for the process to be rethought. The letter, addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said that the community felt "deeply harmed by the inquiry's misguided processes." The inquiry wasn't taking their worries seriously, and wasn't acting on them, the letter said. "They have continually dismissed our concerns, refused to take steps to rebuild trust, and have maintained a deeply misguided approach that imposes a harmful, colonial process on us."

And yet, there does not seem to be any meaningful indication that the inquiry is taking the criticisms on board. A spokesman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett offered the not-entirely-reassuring comment that "the commissioners have a plan and are dedicated to finding solutions to address families' concerns."

Those concerns have not yet been met, and families have every right to worry that they won't be, unless the process changes – and yes, that would be a tricky and time-consuming business, but a necessary one. If trust is lost, the whole process loses its purpose. Why not extend the inquiry's mandate past the original 2018 deadline?

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On the crucial issue of trust, it's useful to go back and listen to what Senator Murray Sinclair told a CBC town hall in April about the beginning of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He became the commission's chair in 2009, after the original commissioners resigned: "We were faced with the anger and disappointment of many survivors who had lost faith in the Truth and Reconciliation process. And so we had to spend time to recover that trust and to address that anger and to engage with the people who were disappointed. And we never shied away from doing that and I think that the commissioners should not shy away from those who are expressing those feelings to them today."

Meanwhile, as the inquiry drags on, violence continues, and it is neither historical nor theoretical: An Indigenous woman dies in police custody in London, Ont., and two officers are charged; another Indigenous woman is killed after being hit by a trailer hitch thrown from a passing truck in Thunder Bay, a possible hate crime; a third, it emerges, was shackled and detained while she was waiting to testify against the man whom she accused of sexually assaulting her.

The MMIWG inquiry does not have to be a failure if changes are made swiftly and transparently. It must not be a failure; there is too much at stake.

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

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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