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Canada’s Long-Awaited National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Women Draws Praise, Concern

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Indigenous leaders across Canada welcomed the August 3 announcement naming the five panelists who will conduct the long-awaited national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women.

But some expressed reservations, calling the mandate “too vague.” And up north, there was concern that the panel did not include any Inuit people.

Leading the inquiry as Chief Commissioner will be Marion Buller, Mistawasis First Nation, Saskatchewan, who was the first female First Nations judge in British Columbia when she was appointed in 1994. The other commissioners are Michèle Audette, Mani Utenam, Québec, former president of the Québec Native Women’s Association; Qajaq Robinson, born in Iqaluit and raised in Igloolik, and an associate at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP; Marilyn Poitras, a Harvard-educated assistant professor in the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan, known as an expert in constitutional and aboriginal law expert, and Brian Eyolfson, Couchiching First Nation, Ontario, a human rights lawyer who is currently acting deputy director of the provincial Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs Legal Services department and formerly was vice chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

Photo: Justin Tang/Canadian Press

Left to right, the five commissioners named to the national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada: Marion Buller, left, Michele Audette, Qajaq Robinson, Marilyn Poitras and Brian Eyolfson.

The federal government promised an “unflinching gaze” at the potentially uncomfortable truths that could emerge as the inquiry unfolds, as Minister of Status of Women Patty Hajdu put it, according to the Nunatsiaq News. She, along with Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett and Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould, announced the commissioners and the parameters of the inquiry.

The government has committed $53.86 million to the panel, which is set to convene on September 1, 2016 and wrap up by December 31, 2018. Officials promised the inquiry would “make recommendations on concrete actions to address and prevent violence against Indigenous women and girls, including systemic and societal discrimination.” Another $16.7 million will go to provincial and territorial governments, CBC News said, over four years to fund family information liaison units in provinces and territories and to enhance victims’ services.

Indigenous leaders lauded the move, expressing relief and hope that the preponderance of violence against Native women could finally see some resolution, and noting that it was a long time coming.

“Too many lives have been touched by this horrific national tragedy,” said Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Women’s Council Chair, Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians Deputy Grand Chief Denise Stonefish, in a statement. “It is important that the Government of Canada has finally responded to the call for a national inquiry. Today’s announcement is a direct result of years of advocacy and tireless grassroots activism by our incredibly resilient women. I lift up our sisters for this work, and I stand with them as we embark on what is sure to be a difficult road ahead and a necessary path on our journey.”

But Dawn Lavalle-Harvard, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), expressed concern that trauma counseling money seemed only allocated for the duration of a person’s appearance before the commission, that the inquiry’s parameters didn’t allow for families to reopen cases that they felt had been closed prematurely, and that the role of provinces and territories was not spelled out explicitly.

The Coalition on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, formed during a previous inquiry in British Columbia, echoed these concerns, calling the panel’s mandate “too vague.”

“The Coalition is pleased that the federal government has mandated the Inquiry to examine systemic causes of violence and has taken into account the needs of vulnerable communities and witnesses,” the coalition said in a statement. “However, given the importance and the promise of the Inquiry, we are deeply concerned about the gaps in the framework that stand to undermine the good intentions that have led to the formation of the Inquiry.”

And the Nunavut government expressed concern at the lack of an Inuit representative on the panel.

“The appointment of a northerner to the commission is encouraging,” said Nunavut’s Minister responsible for the Status of Women Monica Ell-Kanayuk and Minister of Justice Keith Peterson in a joint statement. “However, this is a deeply sensitive issue, and Inuk representation on the commission would have provided balance to directly reflect the culture and experiences of our communities.”

Bennett told those criticizing the choice that Iqaluit-born Robinson “is very much supported by Inuit across the country, and we think she’ll do a great job.”