Last month, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls requested a two-year extension and up to $50 million in order to complete its mandate. The federal government established the MMIWG inquiry in September 2016 after decades of activism by Indigenous women’s organizations to raise the alarm about the disproportionate targeting of Indigenous women and girls for violent death and disappearance in Canada. Tragically, more than 1,200 Indigenous women and girls were killed or disappeared by the time the inquiry was created.
Before the inquiry was established, I wrote that while I supported the call for a national inquiry, it would be critical to choose the right commissioners and ensure a process with a good media strategy to engage the broader public. I recommended the inquiry hold public hearings that are not “lawyer-driven,” welcome independent research, provide opportunities for civil society engagement and hold institutional, community and expert hearings. Otherwise, there was a risk that the inquiry could become a wasteful, frustrating, missed opportunity.
As a scholar of public inquiries and as a feminist advocate, I have been dismayed by the turmoil of the inquiry: the resignation of one of the commissioners last summer, the ongoing litany of staff turnover (including two executive directors, chief commission counsel, research and communications directors and community relations managers), the cancellation of hearings and the lack of communication with the public and parties. The bewildering lack of clarity for participants to know what to expect from the inquiry in terms of schedule, content, procedure and overall plan has perplexed those who earnestly sought to support its work.
The inquiry was to have held family, expert and institutional hearings. The extension request notes that only one expert hearing has been held and no institutional hearings have been held. Further, it states that the inquiry has only recently begun to enter data and records into its electronic document management system. Advisory bodies involving Indigenous youth and LGBTQ2S people (groups particularly targeted for violence) have not yet been created, while a Métis advisory panel is only now being created. The stated need to engage contract research if an extension is granted indicates a critical lack of progress with the research program. The areas listed for research to be commissioned, as well as the original research yet to be conducted by the inquiry’s research team, are all areas of research that should have been well underway. While the extension request describes ongoing meetings with different stakeholders across the country, it does not acknowledge or address the considerable dissatisfaction and concerns raised by stakeholders such as MMIWG families, coalitions, communities, activists and parties with standing. The extension request also notes that the inquiry anticipates a deficit for the next fiscal year.
A good inquiry will educate the public throughout its work about a harmful situation in society and how to prevent its recurrence. An inquiry that is well run and well organized will engage the public so that, by the time it reports, there is political will for the implementation of the recommendations. Unfortunately, this is an unlikely prognosis for this inquiry. The families that have chosen to engage with the inquiry should have their voices heard and respected. However, rather than relying on the inquiry to fulfil its promise of addressing the systemic issues that make Indigenous women and girls subject to heightened violence, MMIWG advocates must call for a government action plan to address the on-the-ground and systemic problems that already have been identified by MMIWG families, civil society organizations and activists.
In 2014, the Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Indigenous Women, an ad hoc coalition of feminist advocates, reviewed 58 reports that implicated violence against Indigenous women and determined that almost none of the approximately 700 recommendations had ever been implemented. The LSC identified a number of necessary measures, including a national action plan to improve co-ordination of governments and agencies, Indigenous involvement in program development and delivery, public education, data collection and more. Going forward, these recommendations should inform government and civil society action.
Mechanisms described by international bodies that have called for action in Canada on MMIWG (some of which are listed in the inquiry’s terms of reference) should be prioritized. Given the disappointing progress of the inquiry to date, many who called for the inquiry are now turning (or returning) to exploring constructive ways to address violence against Indigenous women and girls. These include refocusing on developing or supporting community resources for reporting MMIWG and making submissions to international human rights monitoring bodies. The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women is visiting Canada from April 11 to April 23 to examine how the Canadian government is implementing its international human rights obligations relating to the elimination of violence against women. She will hear how far we still have to go before Canada and Canadians take seriously the enormity of the MMIWG tragedy in our midst. As judicial processes related to the deaths of Cindy Gladue, Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie illustrate, the Canadian justice system has manifestly failed Indigenous women and youth.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called upon lawyers to do our part for reconciliation. Our profession can make a contribution by advocating for the implementation of known ways to prevent violence against Indigenous women and girls. We can — and should — do so by supporting and taking direction from Indigenous advocates in our communities who continue to do the heavy lifting in seeking justice for far too many mothers, sisters and daughters.
Kim Stanton is a lawyer at Goldblatt Partners LLP. She completed her doctoral dissertation at the University of Toronto Law Faculty on the use of truth commissions in established democracies and the institutional design of public inquiries.