OTTAWA—Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau has promised to call a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, but now that it is on the radar, there is some pressure to make sure it is done right.
“We’re only going to get one chance at this, obviously. It’s really important that we do this right,” said Dawn Lavell Harvard, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).
The Liberals have committed $40 million over two years to an inquiry that is expected to examine the root causes behind the more than 1,200 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women and girls.
The numbers are one thing, but those tasked with setting up a national inquiry will need to make difficult decisions about which stories to highlight, which families to hear from and which of the many systemic problems surrounding the issue to address.
Kim Stanton, legal director of the Toronto-based Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, said the inquiry must be structured to attract the attention of Canadians throughout the entire process.
“A really good inquiry is a pedagogical exercise,” said Stanton, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on truth commissions and public inquiries and said getting a report at the end should not be the only goal.
“The point of an inquiry is to educate us about what is going on in our society that is wrong. It can do that, as it goes along, if it is well run and well organized and has various components that will enable the commissioners to more ably tackle the problem in a way that will engage the public, so that by the time they report, there is some political will to do something with the report.”
Everyone agrees the scope and mandate of the inquiry should not be set without first listening to the families of missing and murdered women.
“I think families should be a major part of that inquiry because we are the ones who are living through it and are still living through it,” said Laurie Odjick, whose daughter Maisy was 16 when she went missing from Maniwaki, Que., seven years ago with her friend Shannon Alexander, 17.
Odjick, who has always been on the fence about a national inquiry because she is skeptical of what it will achieve, also wants Trudeau to take charge of that crucial first step.
“He, himself, should meet with us and talk to us and ask us questions because that is something that was never done,” she suggested.
It remains to be seen whether Trudeau will take that step personally, as the new government is focused on preparing for the transition to power Wednesday, but Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said there is an understanding that involving the families before launching an inquiry will be key to its success.
“Justin Trudeau believes you have to talk to the people with expertise and those with lived experience in order to get good policy or good processes,” said Bennett, who was the aboriginal affairs critic in the previous Parliament. “I think step number one is to be in touch with people who have been doing a substantial amount of work, but number one is the families.”
Whatever form the consultations take, many believe it should be done directly with families and aboriginal women at the grassroots level and not through national organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations.
“I know that many families have been hurt and there is a lot of trust issues with the (national organizations) with families. I think they need to stay out of it,” said Beverley Jacobs, a former president of NWAC, although she thinks the organizations and their expertise have other roles to play.
Tanya Kappo, an indigenous lawyer and activist, noted the grassroots have been playing a larger role in the conversation over the past few years, such as through the Idle No More movement with which she has been involved.
“They are perfectly capable of talking for themselves. I think they may have been quite clear, in that even though these organizations exist and may have some views, they don’t represent the voices of the people at the grassroots,” said Kappo.
Harvard, of the NWAC, said she understands those concerns.
“Even just for me, trying to ensure that we have consulted with and really come to a consensus of the opinions and the concerns of all of our women, from the East Coast right to (Vancouver’s) Downtown Eastside, that’s a huge challenge,” she said. “That’s why it is important for those grassroots organizations to have a voice, to have a space, to have support, to have standing.
“We don’t want to see our women being pushed out of the process and have it being taken over by political leaders who essentially came much later to the process.”
By the numbers
718,500: Number of aboriginal females in Canada, representing 4.3 per cent of the population (Source: 2011 National Household Survey)
1,017: Number of aboriginal female victims of homicide across all police jurisdictions from 1980 to 2012, representing about 16 per cent of all female homicides (Source: Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview, RCMP, 2014)
174: Number of aboriginal females missing, representing 10 per cent of all missing-persons cases involving women and girls, since 1951 (Source: Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: 2015 Update to the National Operational Overview, RCMP)