As the Canadian government officially begins its long-awaited national inquiry on September 1 into the country’s high rates of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW), the reservations expressed by families and victims’ advocates when the panel was announced a month ago continue.
To begin with, there are not even firm statistics on how many women are being talked about, pointed out Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC). Due to the dearth of data about the actual number of MMIW, accurate numbers are hard to come by. According to a 2015 report by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) about 1,200 indigenous women are missing or have been murdered. The NWAC, however, estimates the number at around 4,000. This alone handicaps the inquiry, Lavell-Harvard told CBC News.
“The gulf between 1,200 and pushing 4,000 is huge,” she said. “Even if it’s somewhere in the middle, it is still an outrageous number to not have been investigated until this point.”
The government has committed $53.86 million to the two-year project and promised an “unflinching gaze” on the issue, as Patty Hajdu, Minister for the Status of Women, put it.
Government leaders, such as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, called the announcement of the inquiry and its intent “historic.” However, several indigenous leaders and advocates for missing and murdered women have expressed concern about the scope of the inquiry as well as its ability to produce tangible results.
Charlie Angus, New Democratic Party critic for Indigenous and Northern Affairs, told CBC News he hopes the inquiry does not raise false expectations for justice. He described it to as a day of reckoning for Canada.
Marion Buller of Mistawasis First Nation from Saskatchewan, British Columbia’s first female indigenous judge, will serve as chief commissioner of the five-member panel. While she has a reputation of being able to “walk in both worlds,” as The Globe and Mail described her, the commission’s lack of an Inuk member has Inuit groups concerned. Most recently, the group Qulliit Nunavut Status of Women became the latest in a number of organizations to ask that Qajaq Robinson, a fluent Inuit speaker and lawyer who was raised in Nunavut, be replaced with someone who is native to the region, the Nunatsiaq News reported on August 26.
Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promises to make indigenous issues and needs, such as missing and murdered women, priorities in his government, many indigenous people express concern that the inquiry lacks teeth to address the role that police have played in MMIW investigations.
The Inquiry’s draft document obtained by CBC News at the end of July, contains no specific directives to look into allegations of police misconduct in MMIW investigations. In addition, the document directs commissioners not to interfere with ongoing criminal investigations. Much of the focus of the inquiry appears to be on violence prevention and identifying underlying causes of violence against indigenous women and girls, while families also want justice.
Crista Big Canoe, a lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services, told CBC News that one of the main concerns for families of MMIW is over police conduct during investigations of their loved ones’ cases.
“I think it will be a gong show again, truthfully,” Angel Wolf told the broadcaster. Wolf’s sister Brenda was murdered by the pig farmer and serial killer Robert Pickton in British Columbia.
“But I always have hope,” she added.
Wolf’s adoptive mother, Bridget Perrier, noted that police accountability is imperative to understanding why indigenous women disappear and die.
“In some respects it’s almost surreal that this day is actually here,” Nahanni Fontaine, Sagkeeng Anishinaabe First Nation and an NDP member of the Manitoba legislature, said to CBC News. “I personally am just filled with so many emotions. It’s been a long journey.”