Marion Buller, left, Chief Commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, along with her colleague, commissioner Michele Audette, in February 2017.
- Staff – National Post | May 19, 2017
The chief commissioner of the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls has admitted to a “poor communication strategy” in the wake of intense criticism about the inquiry’s progress.
The commission is also planning to ask for an extension, now that only one hearing is scheduled to take place before the fall.
During a Friday afternoon press conference, Marion Buller said the commissioners are taking steps to improve communication.
The inquiry has hired a new communications officer, Bernee Bolton. Former communications director Michael Hutchinson was let go earlier this year, after only a few months.
“We take full responsibility for our poor communication strategy,” Buller said. “We fully acknowledge that and take responsibility for it.”
Buller was responding to an open letter published earlier this week, signed by more than 50 family members, indigenous leaders and advocates, claiming the inquiry is “in serious trouble.”
“We are deeply concerned with the continued lack of communication that is causing anxiety, frustration, confusion, and disappointment in this long-awaited process,” it read.
The letter raised concerns that the inquiry lacks leadership and is re-traumatizing family members of missing and murdered indigenous women.
But Buller said communication is the major issue, not leadership or staffing issues.
Some families have recently told news outlets they’re losing faith in the inquiry. But Buller said she’s been receiving calls from others who say “those people don’t speak for us.”
“I can tell you there’s still a lot of hope out there,” she told reporters.
The commission was supposed to complete its final report by November 2018.
But in a response to the open letter published Friday, Buller acknowledged that the inquiry’s original timelines “are no longer achievable.”
She wouldn’t say how long of an extension the commissioners might request.
At this point, there is only one hearing firmly scheduled, in Whitehorse at the end of the month. A team from the inquiry was in the territory this week to prepare for the week-long hearing that will begin May 29.
“The Whitehorse hearing is going ahead as planned,” Buller said Friday. “We owe that to the community.”
In the Yukon, it seems, many still have faith in the process, despite its flaws.
“I think it’s important,” said Bryan Jack, whose sister, Barbara, went missing as a teenager in Whitehorse in the 1970s. “It brings breathing room to a community that’s having a hard time.”
We are deeply concerned with the continued lack of communication that is causing anxiety, frustration, confusion, and disappointment
In many ways, the territory has been laying the groundwork for this moment for months.
After the first national roundtable on missing and murdered indigenous women was held in Ottawa in February 2015, the Yukon government and local indigenous groups decided to host their own events in Whitehorse. They organized a gathering for family members in December 2015, and a regional roundtable in February 2016 — months before the national inquiry was officially launched.
Jack was among those who shared their stories at the roundtable.
Afterward, he said, the local RCMP detachment followed up with him to see if he wanted to discuss his sister’s case any further.
“I really had a lot of respect for (the process),” he said.
Doris Anderson, president of the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council, said that regional roundtable “let the families know that they are being heard.”
Demonstrators hold pictures of missing aboriginal women at a rally on Parliament Hill .
The women’s council and several other indigenous groups have been instrumental in advocating for families and making sure they feel comfortable coming forward, even months after the roundtable.
Anderson is among those who signed the open letter criticizing the commission this week. But she’s still optimistic about the inquiry’s future.
“We were the first to begin with, so of course there’s going to be some stumbling blocks,” she said. “I think they’re working really hard to ensure that the process gets a lot smoother.”
The Yukon government declined a request for comment from the National Post. But Jeanie Dendys, minister responsible for the Women’s Directorate, wrote a letter to Buller in March inviting the commission to come to the Yukon.
“I also want to take this opportunity to request relevant, timely and transparent communication for our people,” she wrote.
For his part, Jack still isn’t sure he’ll make it to the hearing, as it’s nearly summer and he’s busy. But he said he’ll go if he can.
“Nowadays, it’s like the fire’s lit beneath the people with the authority,” he said. “And we’ve just got to get on with it.”