- Indigenous groups say they’ve been left in the dark and ‘re-victimised’ by Trudeau government’s investigation, and call for a reset after months of red flags
More than a dozen people gathered behind the podium, some clutching framed photos of loved ones. For years they had called for justice and demanded change, amid estimates that as many as 4,000 indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada in recent decades.
Their determination crystalised into federal action last August, when the Liberal government launched a two-year, C$53.8m inquiry aimed at bringing an end to what it called an “ongoing national tragedy”.
But nearly one year later, this Manitoba coalition – made up of those who had last family and friends – had come together again to demand change.
“We have lost confidence in the national inquiry,” Hilda Anderson-Pryz, whose sister Dawn died under mysterious circumstances in 2011, told reporters. “We’re being left out and not being heard by the national inquiry. We all agree that we cannot dishonour our loved ones and ourselves by participating in a flawed process.”
The declaration came after months of red flags, they said. The inquiry sparked anger early on when it was revealed that policing would be omitted from the terms of reference, despite longstanding complaints of police failure to protect indigenous women equally.
Months later, many families began voicing concerns over being left in the dark by those leading the inquiry. Questions continued to mount in recent months after four staff members – including the executive director – resigned.
The inquiry was again thrust into the spotlight earlier this month, after the resignation of one of the five commissioners heading the inquiry. Marilyn Poitras said her decision was prompted by disagreements with other commissioners. Most leading the inquiry favour a “status quo colonial model of hearings”, she said in a statement. “Because of this, I strongly feel the terms of reference that we were set out to achieve have not been met.”
The announcement came as the last straw to many, unleashing a raft of calls to overhaul an inquiry that ranked as a central commitment from Justin Trudeau ’s government to indigenous Canadians. The debate came to a head this week, leading the Assembly of First Nations to passing a motion at its annual meeting that would see the organisation push for big changes to the inquiry.
Canada’s indigenous community makes up about 4% of the population and grapples with rates of poverty, incarceration and suicide rates that are much higher than non-indigenous Canadians.
One of the loudest voices calling for a reset to the inquiry has been the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak grand chief, Sheila North Wilson, whose organisation represents some 30 First Nations communities in Manitoba. “We need to signal to families that we are listening and that we care enough to set it straight before it gets any worse,” she said in an interview.
The families’ frustration over being left out is particularly disturbing, said North Wilson, as it was their persistence that gave rise to the inquiry in the first place. “Even though the situation got worse and more women started going missing and more were murdered, the women were relentless. They still stayed on the streets until it became this national election issue here in Canada.”
Many families now wonder whether sharing their stories with the inquiry will amount to change. “They’re basically being re-victimised by this process. It takes them a lot of energy and a lot of strength to re-tell their stories,” said North Wilson. “What’s at stake is that we’re going to lose more and more of indigenous women and girls in Canada.”
Others have urged patience with the process. The National Family Advisory Circle, made up of families invited by the inquiry to guide and support the commissioners, pointed to the “monumental task” being undertaken.
“Some of us have been fighting for over 40 years for our voices to be heard,” the group said in a recent statement . “The Commissioners had to start the National Inquiry from nothing and they are learning as they go, as we all are. The process is not perfect but nothing ever is.”
Trudeau, who swept into power in 2015 promising a renewed relationship with Canada’s 1.4 million indigenous people, said he was aware of the concerns. “It was always, and would always, be a very difficult process,” the prime minister recently told reporters. “The inquiry needs to provide justice for the victims, healing for the families and put an end to this ongoing tragedy.”
Those behind the inquiry acknowledged some of the concerns this week, issuing a statement that said the inquiry would consider the “conduct of policing services and policies across Canada in 14 federal, provincial and territorial jurisdictions”.
The inquiry’s first hearing was held in June, and another nine are slated to be held in the coming months, said Marion Buller, the chief commissioner. “We started on 1 September – four commissioners and myself and a piece of paper, our terms of reference. In eight months, we hired staff, we opened offices, we put life to our terms of reference, and we held our first hearing,” she recently told reporters. “In my view, that’s lightning speed.”
Her words came as little comfort to Bridget Tolley, who has spent some 16 years searching for answers. In 2001, her mother, Gladys, was fatally struck by a police cruiser as she crossed the highway in front of her home in the First Nation community of Kitigan Zibi.
The police closed the case one year later, despite Tolley’s many concerns over the accident and how it was reported. Several groups – including Amnesty International – have since joined her in calling for an independent investigation into her mother’s death.
“I want justice for my mother,” said Tolley. “I don’t know how to do it – I went through everything. I went through the proper way, I went and got support from national organisations, I’ve been asking ministers, I’ve been making vigils.”
She had allowed herself a shred of hope when the inquiry was initially launched. But recently she joined others in signing on to a letter to Trudeau asking him to halt the inquiry. “The time has come to restart this top-down inquiry and to rebuild it from the ground up,” the families wrote.
Fighting back tears, Tolley said that for her – and the thousands of others left grieving in recent decades – the struggle to find answers would continue, regardless of the inquiry’s next steps.
“I’m going to continue with or without,” she said. “I’m moving forward alone. I started alone, I’ve been doing this most of the time alone. I’m very grateful for all the people that supported me along the way but I’m not stopping until I get justice for my mother.”