Indigenous Women Demand Stronger Provincial Support For National Inquiry

The Urban Warrior Alliance camps outside the legislature to protest the delays in the missing and murdered indigenous women inquiry Tuesday. RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Urban Warrior Alliance camps outside the legislature to protest the delays in the missing and murdered indigenous women inquiry Tuesday. RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Free Press, By: Alexandra Paul Posted: 07/26/2016

A group of indigenous women camping at the legislature wants to know whether Manitoba supports a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

“Our understanding is the government is holding up the inquiry over the terms of reference and over semantics. So what’s going on? The families are waiting,” said Chelsea Cardinal, one of two women at the camp Tuesday.

There were three tents set up on the legislature’s front lawn; a similar tent camp two years ago also called for a national inquiry, before Ottawa signed on to it.

The group is expected to take turns, holding down the camp, where a fire for prayers was lit Monday evening, over the next four days and nights.

The latest camp comes after a week or more of mixed signals and growing frustration among indigenous advocates in and outside Manitoba that the inquiry is being held up.

The national inquiry will look at the estimated 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, including more than 100 who are from Manitoba.

Prior to the premiers’ meeting last weekend in Whitehorse, federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett attempted to settle public concerns after a copy of the terms of reference for the inquiry was leaked. She assured advocates that policing and child welfare issues, both systemic issues, would form a big part of the mandate.

Aboriginal leaders and premiers also added their oar to calm the waters by stating there was no need to wait for an inquiry to get to work on the socio-economic issues behind the problem, another issue indigenous advocates and families have repeatedly raised.

And late Tuesday, in response to word the camp had been set up, Manitoba waded in to break through the continued confusion with an unequivocal statement of support for the national inquiry.

“Manitoba’s new government intends to move forward with an order in council in support of the federal government’s establishment of a national inquiry. We will do this in a timely manner as we continue to work with our federal and provincial partners to finalize the draft terms of reference,” Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said in an email to the Free Press.

The statement raised one of the major points of confusion, that the terms of reference were an issue still to be worked out with Ottawa. Stephanson’s statement did not go into details.

The concern with the Pallister government is Manitoba may try to delay the national inquiry, or at the very least pare down it’s scope, to leave out systemic issues such as the child welfare and policing, women at the legislature camp said.

The camp’s concerns echo the province’s First Nations and indigenous leaders who met a week ago with the provincial ministers for justice and indigenous and municipal affairs and issued public statements urging the province to sign on to the inquiry.

NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine, the NDP government’s former adviser on missing and murdered indigenous women’s issues, told the women Tuesday their presence reminds the province it owes the public an explanation on where it stands.

“You cannot just do the work and not advise the families of the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls on what you’re doing,” Fontaine said.

The federal Liberals made the national inquiry, something former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper opposed, a major election promise.

But since Justin Trudeau became prime minister, headway in Ottawa appears to be meeting headwinds in Manitoba by the Conservatives under Premier Brian Pallister, the women at the camp said.

They cited Leslie Spillett’s removal from the Winnipeg Police Board this month as a jolt, especially since the respected indigenous advocate hadn’t been given the courtesy of a phone call before the announcement was made public.

“What is going to be happening next? We took a few steps forward with the national inquiry happening. Now it’s being held up again. To us, it seems like tactics,” Sandy Banman said.

Fontaine told the women to expect an announcement from Ottawa as early as next week on the start of the national inquiry.

The most recent media reports noted the province wanted a commissioner from Manitoba named to the inquiry and they had questions over the inquiry’s terms of reference.

Read more by Alexandra Paul   .