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Canada is finally confronting why 1,200 Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered

The government announced on Wednesday the start of a long-awaited inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, who are six times more likely to be murder victims than non-Aboriginal women in Canada.
Une militante porte une photo de Lana Derrick, qui a disparu en 1995. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

The Canadian government launched on Wednesday its long awaited inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, and with it pledged nearly $12 million to help give families "the information they seek about the loss of their loved one."

More than 1,200 Indigenous women and girls have been murdered or gone missing across the country since 1980 — although advocates have pointed out that number could be as high as 4,000. The inquiry will focus on the systemic causes of violence toward these women and girls — who are six times more likely to be murder victims than non-Aboriginal women — and on how to prevent this violence, government officials vowed Wednesday morning.


The new funding for police liaison units targets families who have expressed frustrations with police because detectives refuse to give them information about their dead or missing relatives. But police services have long maintained that they need to protect important information about these cases in order to solve them. The promise of sharing that information with families will be especially tricky since, in some cases, the family members themselves are suspects.

As she made the announcement during the emotional press conference, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould choked up.

"In the pre-inquiry sessions held across the country, some of the families of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls told us that they wanted to know more about what happened to their loved ones," Wilson-Raybould said. "They found it hard to get the information. So to help them to get the information, the department of justice will immediately increase financial assistance to the provinces and territories. Specifically the department will provide $11.67 million over three years to help the provinces and territories establish new family information liaison units within their existing victims services departments."

The units will work directly with families and provincial and territorial governments "to help families find the information they seek about the loss of their loved one," she said. "In addition these units will help families deal with the trauma of their loss and help them connect with the resources they require."


The Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) has waited more than 11 years for this inquiry, the organization said in a release Wednesday.

While NWAC applauded the government for including hearing from families in culturally appropriate ways in the inquiry's terms of reference, the organization slammed the government for not including a separate and independent process to review and reopen cases "when there is evidence that the case requires a second look."

"This appears to be completely ignored as part of the inquiry," the release states.

Related: Critics say Canada's inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women will be toothless

NWAC had also called on the government to include engaging with the provinces and territories in the inquiry's mandate.

"There is no mention of the role of the provinces and territories in the Terms of Reference," NWAC's release states. "It is unclear how the provinces and territories will be able to contribute to the discussions. This is especially critical given that many of the systemic issues that need to be changed are within systems that fall under provincial jurisdiction, including child welfare, health services and most police services."

Ahead of the announcement, a leaked document detailing the inquiry's terms of reference drew scrutiny because it didn't mention the police role in the deaths and disappearances. During the pre-inquiry phase, families said examination of the police role is critical and should be central because they believe police aren't doing enough to protect Indigenous women and investigate their cases when they do disappear.


However, Minister of Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development Carolyn Bennett attempted to lay these criticisms to rest. "Specifically, we heard that policing and child welfare systems need to be examined," Bennett said, adding, "We do believe that this next phase will honourably reflect what we heard in the pre-inquiry." However, she did not directly promise that the commission would examine the police role.

A coalition of Canadian human rights and First Nations groups also volleyed criticisms at the inquiry, saying it did not legally mandate the provinces and territories to participate or produce documents, it will not include the role of police in its scope, and it gives no avenue other than the police for families seeking justice.

A range of mostly female and Indigenous judges and lawyers will head the inquiry. Marion Buller, a British Columbia provincial court judge, was named Chief Commissioner. The other four commissioners are Michele Audette, the former president of the Quebec Native Women's Association, Qajaq Robinson, an Iqaluit-born lawyer who is fluent in Inuktitut, Marilyn Poitras, an assistant professor of law at the University of Saskatchewan, and Brian Eyolfson, a lawyer and deputy director of the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.

The focus of the inquiry will be on Indigenous women — not Indigenous men, though some groups have pointed out that Indigenous men are three times more likely to be murdered compared to their Indigenous female counterparts.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont