Canada MMIW Inquiry Struggles as Staff Flee

Justin Tang/Canadian Press / Left to right: Marion Buller, Qajaq Robinson, Marilyn Poitras, Michele Audette and Brian Eyolfson, the members of the commission conducting a national inquiry into the high rates of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada.

Mary Annette Pember

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women panel commissioner’s resignation signals deeper problems, critics say

A national inquiry into the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) in Canada is failing to examine the systemic violence and root causes of violence against Indigenous people in Canada, according to outgoing commissioner Marilyn Poitras.

The July 11 resignation of Poitras, one of five commissioners of the National Inquiry for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and LGBTQ25 people in Canada was the latest blow to the inquiry process that has been beset with problems and criticism since before it was launched about a year ago.

In her public letter of resignation, Poitras, Métis, described the inquiry process of listening to the stories of families of the missing and murdered as a “status quo colonial model of hearings.” She disagreed with the vision and terms of reference of the inquiry, which she said has failed to meet with the indigenous community and grassroots organizations. She also said the hearing process has not been conducted in a respectful, trauma-informed way for families of the missing and murdered.

“That is why it is with great regret and a heavy heart that I resign,” she wrote.

Four inquiry staff members have also resigned since the panel began meeting last September. Sue Montgomery, the organization’s second director of communications, left in June.

“I think it’s a sign that perhaps there are some internal issues that need fixing, including coming up with a detailed plan, before hearings can continue, “ Montgomery told CBC News at the time.

Officials had promised that the inquiry would “make recommendations on concrete actions to address and prevent violence against indigenous women and girls, including systemic and societal discrimination.” Even then, however, indigenous women’s advocacy organizations such as the Coalition on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls described the panel’s mandate as “too vague.”

Since Poitras’s resignation, leading indigenous women’s organizations and leaders have called for a “reset” of the inquiry process and echoed her lack of confidence with the panel’s current structure and proceedings. The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) and the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) sent letters to Ottawa in July calling for the inquiry to restructure its approach.

“The process has lost its focus on those who are impacted by the loss of loved ones and on honoring the lives of indigenous women,” observed NWAC’s interim President Francyne Joe in a statement.

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) First Vice-Chief Kimberly Johathan, Vice Chief Heather Bear, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson have publicly joined the cry. Before Poitras announced that she was leaving the panel, North Wilson called for the current inquiry chief commissioner, Marion Buller, to resign, reported CBC News.

“I’m not trying to be controversial, but I think this is just too serious of an issue to be struggling this way,” she said.

Critics complain that the Inquiry panel has failed to meet with the indigenous community and grass roots organizations and the hearing process has not been conducted in a respectful, trauma informed way for families of the missing and murdered.

So far, the Inquiry has conducted one public hearing, held in Whitehorse, Yukon from May 30 to June 2. The second hearing scheduled to take place in Thunder Bay, Ontario in September has been rescheduled for December, a decision made after critics complained that the Thunder Bay community was still reeling from a series of brutal attacks on indigenous women and teens. Most recently, Barbara Kentner, Anishinaabe, died on July 4 at age 36 from injuries she sustained earlier this year after being struck with a trailer hitch thrown from a passing car.

The Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) cited the inquiry’s decision to hold a fall hearing in Thunder Bay as an example of the organization’s disconnect with the indigenous community.

“If they were working on the ground, as they say, they would know that Thunder Bay is not the best place to start in Ontario right now,” stated the letter that ONWA wrote to commissioners withdrawing support for the inquiry.

“The inquiry doesn’t seem to have any real teeth,” complained Melissa Mousseau Meseyton, Cree, an advocate with the nonprofit New Directions Transition, Education and Resources for Females (TERF) Program in Winnipeg, Manitoba, an organization that serves individuals exploited through the sex trade.

Another concern is that even if the inquiry makes recommendations, there is no system for implementing changes, Mousseau Meseyton said. In addition, she said, victims and families have not gotten a chance to tell their full stories during the inquiry process.

“Basically, they get revictimized for nothing,” she said, adding that families are not offered trauma-informed aftercare counseling except for just after they appear before the panel.

A member of Mousseau Meseyton’s own family, Roberta McIvor, was murdered in 2011 by two teen members of Sandy Bay First Nation in Manitoba, according to the Toronto Sun. Citing their youth—ages 15 and 17—the judge sentenced the girls to just two years in the grisly decapitation death of 32-year-old McIvor.

“When they [the inquiry] bring these memories up for people, they need to allow enough time for them to debrief,” Mousseau Meseyton said, adding that she is also concerned about the fast pace of the inquiry process. “It seems like they are in such a hurry to wrap it up.”

The inquiry is scheduled to finish its work by December 31, 2018.

Some of the inquiry commissioners spoke at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) General Assembly in Regina, Saskatchewan, held from July 25–27, at the invitation of National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

“We’re very concerned about this resignation because the work of the national inquiry is too important and we want to see it succeed for families,” Bellegarde said in a statement, adding that the inquiry must use a “families first” approach. The AFN stopped short of calling for a full reboot of the commission, according to the Canadian Press.

Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett, however, has praised the inquiry’s work and said it will go on. She said she has met with inquiry members and that the Inquiry does indeed have plans to address systemic problems in policing.

“I am impressed with their work plan, their commitment and passion and plans for research,” Bennett told CBC News on July 11 after Poitras’s announcement.

Buller said she has no plans to resign and indicated that the panel will need more money and time to complete its work. The federal government gave the commissioners $53.9 million to for the two-year process. So far the inquiry has spent $11 million and completed one public hearing, according to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).

“This resignation [of Poitras] is not going to change the work that we are doing in terms of preparing the right path, the good path to hear from families and survivors,” Bennett told CBC News. She noted that it is up to the Liberal government to decide about replacing Poitras. So far, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not commented on any changes for the inquiry.

Despite the disenchantment with the way the process is being handled, the families are determined to see it through, Mousseau Meseyton said.

“Many of the families are so strong,” she said. “They will do whatever they have to do to make sure this inquiry goes forward.”