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

A national inquiry into the reasons why more than a thousand Indigenous women have disappeared or been killed hasn't yet begun, but it's already causing fraustration.
July 23, 2016, 4:40pm
Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett. (Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

Canada's long-awaited missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry hasn't yet begun, but leaked documents outlining its mandate have already been panned by Indigenous communities as toothless.

Not only does it not direct commissioners to review police and police practices, they say it also doesn't specifically mention police.

That's a major issue because families of the more than 1,200 Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered across Canada since 1980 have repeatedly called for the inquiry to look at cold cases, and have questioned whether police did a thorough-enough job investigating their relatives' deaths and disappearances.

Delaine Copenace's sisters sitting by her grave. (Hilary Beaumont)

"Overall the [terms of reference] describe a process of consultation with families and survivors, with an emphasis on healing and reconciliation," a statement from Amnesty International cosigned by the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations and other organizations states. "This is important. But the National Inquiry must also be able to take a hard look at the programs, practices and policies of governments, which have contributed to, maintained, or exacerbated the violence.

"Since the failure of the police and the justice system to adequately protect Indigenous women and girls and to respond quickly and diligently to the violence is a central concern, and since this failure has been identified as a violation of Canada's obligations under international human rights law, it should be a central focus of the inquiry," the statement continues.


Indigenous communities are so frustrated with local and national police that they've started their own Bear Clan Patrols — Indigenous neighbourhood watch groups — in Winnipeg and other communities in Canada with an aim of protecting Indigenous people because they say police aren't doing enough.

Anita Fisher is starting a Bear Clan Patrol in Kenora, Ontario following the death of her daughter, Delaine Copenace, this spring.

Local police told her Delaine's death was likely an accident or a suicide, and that she fell through the ice on the nearby Lake of the Woods and drowned. But Fisher says her daughter was not suicidal and would never have walked out onto the ice. She accuses police of not doing enough to investigate her case, or to prevent her death.

"I believe they can solve this," she said Friday. "I believe they can find who actually did this to her.

"That was disappointing," she said of the moment when she read that the terms of reference didn't include police conduct. She wants the inquiry to take a close look at how police investigate the deaths of Indigenous women and girls.

Related: Tina Fontaine's Body Was Tossed in a River and Now Police Have Made an Arrest

"I believe that it should be looked at, how cases are handled—the investigation part of it. I don't think we're being taken seriously."

By promising an inquiry ahead of the fall federal election, the Liberals raised hopes that cold cases would be re-examined.


"We will immediately launch a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, to seek recommendations on concrete actions that governments, law enforcement and others can take to solve these crimes and prevent future ones," the platform states.

A shrine in Anita Fisher's house for her daughter Delaine to come home safe. (Hilmary Beaumont)

But the document doesn't direct commissioners to solve any cases.

Instead it directs the five unnamed commissioners to inquire into the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls, and the institutional policies and practices in response to that violence. It also asks them to recommend "concrete and effective action" the governments can take to remove systemic causes of violence.

It also says commissioners can't assign civil or criminal liability to anyone or any organization, and they must be careful to not jeopardize any ongoing criminal investigation or proceeding. If they come across additional information about these cases, they must pass that information to the appropriate authorities, including any information relating to misconduct.

Related: Life and Death Along Canada's Highway of Tears

The Native Women's Association of Canada, one of the main organizations behind the push for a national inquiry, said it would be too premature to comment on the leaked document.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont