After years of debate and inaction, the Canadian government has finally launched an inquiry into the national crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
In an announcement made Wednesday morning in Gatineau, Quebec, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett named the five commissioners—four women and one man—who will be heading up the investigation, which will start in September and carry on until December 2018.
The chief commissioner, Marion Buller, became BC's first female Indigenous judge in 1994, and has a background in civil and criminal law.
The other four commissioners are Michèle Audette, former president the Québec Native Women's Association; Qajaq Robinson, a lawyer who hails from Iqaluit; University of Saskatchewan professor Marilyn Poitras; and Brian Eyolfson, acting deputy director, Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, legal services.
The RCMP estimates 1,200 Indigenous women went missing or were murdered between 1980 and 2012.
The inquiry will have the power to call any witness—including police—to give them evidence. It will also have $16 million in funding to set up family liaison units in each province and territory and to support victims of violence.
Bennett said the announcement was "historic" while Justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, moved to tears, said, "We know that the inquiry cannot undo the injustices that Indigenous peoples have suffered over decades, but we can review what's happened in the past, reflect on our present circumstances, and chart a path moving forward."
However not everyone is convinced the inquiry will go far enough. VICE reached out to several stakeholders to ask what red flags they see in the government's plan.
Melina Laboucan-Massimo, sister of Bella Laboucan-McLean, who died after falling 31 stories from a Toronto condo building. (Her death remains unsolved.)
VICE: How are you feeling today?
Melina Laboucan-Massimo: It's very bittersweet in the hope that change will be made but also knowing that the systemic issues are huge and not something that can be changed overnight. It's going to be a big overhaul for the public to be engaged, for people to be moved it can't just be five commissioners, it's going to have to be all of Canada to understand the depth and gravity of this issue.
What do you make of the inquiry's power to question police?
What does that actually mean? If the commissioners can compel cops to give evidence but they could potentially utilize the fact that cases like my sister's and other cases are still unsolved and still sitting idle, still open essentially, what the police could do is basically decide to utilize lawyers and also say these cases are still open so therefore we don't actually have to give evidence. (Minister Wilson-Raybould said cops will maintain authority over individual cases.)
So do you think it doesn't go far enough?
What role will commissioners have in investigating the police misconduct or police in general in police investigations of our families' cases? What we are seeing from the terms of reference is that's not stated. This is a problem and this is a concern for a variety of human rights and Indigenous communities and grassroots communities. This is something we have repeatedly said—that it is important to look at police misconduct and to hold police accountable for the inadequate protection of Indigenous women. It is a sense of disappointment, and i think that's something a lot of people are feeling.
Obviously this inquiry has to do more than just point out that there's a problem. What do you think we need to do to move forward?
We need to see more solutions implemented, more steps towards protecting our women. We have seen previous recommendations, up to 700 recommendations, about what steps now can be taken to protect Indigenous women. Like putting the community liaison unit towards a bus that will make women along the Highway of Tears safer. There are very concrete examples like that of safety parameters that can be put into place now—not having to wait two years.
Erica Violet Lee, Cree activist
What's your reaction to today's announcement?
I cannot begin to describe what it is like to grow up in a country where we are shown that Canada believes Indigenous women are disposable. It's the strength of our families and communities that shows us otherwise. I've seen so many headlines this morning about the cost of the inquiry, and how it is "higher than expected." I wonder if the media will comment in the same way about the cost of the "Canada 150" celebrations we will be bombarded with in 2017. This inquiry is the result of decades of activism, and fundamentally, about our right to exist as Indigenous women. There is no amount of money in the world that will ever replace our sisters. There is no report that will make things OK while we are still facing colonial violence.
How do you feel about who is leading the commission?
The commissioners are some of the most powerful and intelligent people in the country, and I imagine they will do their best to honour the experiences of our communities. But ultimately this is an issue of structural violence rooted in the colonial history of this land. This is an issue of gendered violence and racism and dispossession from our lands. Fixing all of that is not the job of a few Indigenous women.
So are there voices you think are missing?
It's necessary for young girls and young women to be involved in the commission, queer and two-spirit people, people who are or have been sex workers. These are intersections that cannot be erased when we talk about who is going missing. Not a single one of these girls or women ever "deserved" to be stolen: that we spend so much of our time repeating this simple point illustrates how much work still has to be done on the part of Canada. There are so many varied experiences to be considered under the label of MMIW.
Once the inquiry is complete, does it seem like it will actually have "teeth"?
It's important that the complicity of police and RCMP in violence against Indigenous women is being acknowledged. We are told that the police are here to help us, but in our communities, we know that going to the police can be dehumanizing at best or a death sentence at worst. All the brave work done by black, migrant, and queer activists has been instrumental in bringing police brutality to the attention of the Canadian public. However, as we saw with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there will be no legal power to prosecute based on the inquiry alone. Many families are still fighting in courts and they need access to legal help and financial resources. For those who survive sexual violence, there is often little social support. Incarceration rates of Indigenous women and two-spirit people are rising. All of these issues need to be addressed when we are talking about the lives of Native women being taken away.
Rebecca Kudloo, President Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, speaking at a press conference on the lack of Inuk representation on the commission:
It was our expectation from the beginning that we would have an Inuk commissioner and that our recommendations to the federal government would be honoured. I am sorry to say that we have not been successful and as of today, it is my understanding that not one of the five commissioners will be an Inuk woman.
As Inuit women, most of us live in regions with the highest rates of violence in the country. I cannot understand how in 2016 we are still not being included in our own right as full participants in these historic opportunities. To us, this does not feel like it is 2016 for all women in Canada.
When the new government was elected last fall, I was very hopeful for the first time in many years. I then became very frustrated as we have not yet established a new relationship with the federal government that is rooted in reconciliation and gender equality. Pauktuutit has been reaching out and we are still hopeful that we can find a way to work together and move forward.
Vanessa Watts, academic director Indigenous Studies at McMaster University
What stands out to you about the structure of the inquiry?
Indigenous women are being empowered to have some level of control over the inquiry. Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls have been promised that they will be involved.
What has to happen for this inquiry to go beyond what we've seen in the past and actually make a change?
A meaningful inquiry doesn't end at rebuking policing services and the like, but actually changing how authorities value Indigenous lives. Is there going to be an apology by various policing services? Is there going to be a promise to take these cases more seriously? Canada needs to respond to Indigenous peoples on these questions and others. Asking families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to re-live trauma for the sake of a successful inquiry better include some serious commitments to alleviating grief in whatever way possible while also preventing future cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Interviews have been condensed for style and clarity.
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