REFLECTIONS ON MURDERED AND MISSING INDIGENOUS WOMEN INQUIRY

THE DAY ARRIVED! 

August 3rd, 2016: After many years of lobbying and awareness raising, the day finally arrived that indigenous peoples in Canada have been waiting for. The day the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous women was launched with its mandate, commissioners, process and budget.

 The announcement brought comments from many groups, some being happy the inquiry was finally going to start, others expressed criticism, fears and apprehensions that the inquiry would not be able to make the needed systemic changes due to deficient terms of reference. 

WHO ARE THE COMMISSIONERS?

 An important part of the inquiry is who are the Commissioners? What are their areas of expertise? What background do they have in MMIW?  Knowing this can help understand the kinds of recommendations will come from the Commission.

Heading up the inquiry is provincial court Judge Marion Buller.  Marion headed up the Caribou Chilcotin Inquiry many years ago before she became a judge, and started First Nations Courts in British Columbia. She is someone who is familiar with First Nations in the legal system.

The rest of the team is comprised of one non-indigenous person, Qajaq Robinson, one First Nations man from Toronto Brian Eyolfsen, one First Nations woman (Marion Buller), one Metis Woman (Marilyn Poitras) and Michele Audette who has an Innu mother.  Two of the indigenous women are from Saskatchewan, though one lives in BC now.  The other lives in Quebec.  Qajaq Robinson is from Iqaliut but lives in Ottawa, the only “northern commissioner”.  Inuk women have been expressing for over a week that they are very disappointed that an Inuk woman was not put on the commission.  The province of Manitoba expressed discontent that there was no appointment from their province.  Concerns have been expressed about having a male commissioner.  Some families have said they don’t want a man on the panel when they are talking about violence from men. 

The panel is heavily weighted with lawyers, four of the five commissioners are lawyers, one being a judge.  Within the lawyers there is an academic, a government bureaucrat, a judge and a practicing lawyer.  With such a large emphasis on lawyers, you can predict that there will be a very legalistic approach to the process and the recommendations.  The fifth commissioner is the former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada(NWAC).

 What is missing is anyone from the social services, street workers or advocates, familiarity with the human services side of the equation. It appears  there are no commissioners that have worked extensively in the MMIW other than the work that Michele did with NWAC.  The Commissioners are very qualified individuals in their fields but do they have the background and needed experience in MMIW? Only time will tell.  The federal government said they chose the commissioners based on what the families said they wanted. 

 Who is on the commission is very important but what are they empowered to do is more important. 

WHAT WILL INQUIRY COVER? 

The Terms of Reference and the Inquiries Act are what will dictate what the Commissioner will be able to do with this most important inquiry on MMIW. 

There are only two things the Commission is to inquire into:

 i)              Systemic causes of all forms of violence-including sexual violence-against Indigenous women and girls in Canada, including social, economic, cultural, institutional and historical causes contributing to the ongoing violence and particular vulnerabilities of Indigenous women and girls in Canada, and

ii)             Institutional policies and practices implemented in response to violence experience by Indigenous women and girls in Canada, including the identification and examination of practices that have been effective in reducing violence and increasing safety.

Then, the Commissioners are to make recommendation on:

 i)              concrete and effective action that can be taken to remove systemic causes of violence and to increase the safety of Indigenous women and girls in Canada, and

ii)             Ways to honour and commemorate the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada

WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

 What the terms of reference for the MMIW inquiry boils down to is what are the SYSTEMIC CAUSES for violence against Indigenous women and girls and are there any existing successful policies or practices to reduce violence? Once the Commission answers these questions the Commissioners will make recommendations on how to remove the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls and increase their safety.

Like all words, it is how you interpret them.  I hope the Commissioners open up the inquiry to be broad in scope because there is a much bigger picture that MMIW needs to fit within.  For example can we look at the root causes of why Indigenous women go missing?  Why do they leave their communities?  The answer to that question could be no or substandard housing, no day care, no jobs to support their family, no transportation to get to medical appointments or see family in other communities, no schools for children to attend. It may be there is no hope left for their First Nation because the governments are not trying to address longstanding land and rights issues. Possibly if some of these issues were fixed, fewer women might leave their communities and end up missing.  But if you look over the terms of reference, there is no inclusion of First Nations Chiefs and Council on the regional advisory bodies or the issue-specific advisory bodies.  The consultations on the inquiry were only with the families of MMIW, not the political bodies who provide services in the communities.  There are many reasons why women leave their communities, and is the question the inquiry is being asked broad enough to look at these underlying causes?

 There have been many criticisms of the terms of reference do not take into account the actions of the police. One could read the systemic causes of violence in institutions as examining the role of the police/justice system in contributing to the violence against women. Isn’t investigating missing and murdered indigenous women thoroughly and effectively a form of violence against indigenous women? Unless you can look at police actions as contributing to the ongoing violence of women, then we won’t be able to make the systemic changes that are urgently required regarding police.

HONOUR AND COMMEMORATE MMIW

The other body of recommendations the Commission is to make is to find ways to honour and commemorate the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Isn’t the best way to honour and commemorate missing and murdered indigenous women and girls is to find them, or find what happened to them, and bring the murderers and violators to justice.  To use their experiences to find better ways to prevent violence, better methods for immediate and effective investigations, an improved justice systems, support systems for families, etc. 

As indigenous peoples we know that one of the root causes of violence against indigenous women and girls is racism, that some people think that Indigenous women lives are worthless because they are indigenous.  How do you change that kind of mentality?

INQUIRY VERY IMPORTANT AND MUST BE UTILIZED TO FULLEST 

The National Inquiry on Murdered and Missing Women is an important piece in preventing more women from going missing or being vulnerable to being murdered. A National Inquiry will not be the only solution but it is an important one.

There are capable commissioners, a Terms of Reference that can be read liberally and hopefully in ways that will bring the answers and solutions people want and need.  There seems to be a lot of room for the Commission to establish its own processes, where it will hold hearings and compel witnesses and hire experts.  Good to see the budget has grown from the original $40 million to $53.86 million with an additional $16.17 million for Family Information Liaison Units that will assist families of #MMIW.

 It will take two years for a final report with an interim report next fall. The time for doing an inquiry was long ago, many more indigenous women went missing from lack of action.  Hope is on the horizon.  We need to make this inquiry into what it is we want regardless of broad, general or limiting words.  The time is now to deal with this pervasive issue.  Let us take the time and energy to provide this Commission with the necessary information and tools they need to eradicate systemic barriers that Indigenous women and girls live with every day.  

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