Note on terminology: Though the official name of the inquiry includes only Indigenous “Women and Girls,” the authors’ arguments are intended to include all Indigenous persons who identify as female, including members of the two-spirited community.
When the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls began, it brought hope that the Indigenous families and communities devastated by violence in Canada might finally receive justice. However, at present, it appears unlikely that such an outcome will be achieved unless significant measures are undertaken to address its shortcomings.
Launched on September 1, 2016, the inquiry’s mandate was to address the high rates of physical and sexual violence experienced by Indigenous women in Canada, which was at a rate 3.5 times higher than the rate for non-Indigenous women aged 15 years and older, as of 2015. It was recently reported that the inquiry will seek an extension from the federal government.
Hundreds of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women have piled up over the years, and most families are still no closer to knowing what happened to their loved ones.
The two-year, $53.86 million inquiry was meant to funnel its resources into uncovering the systemic causes of the victimization of Indigenous women while making concrete recommendations for improvements to anti-violence laws and increased protection for Indigenous women in Canadian society. Moreover, the five Commissioners steering the inquiry were mandated to consult with Indigenous witnesses every step of the way.
Today, very few of the 70 recommendations from the Pre-Inquiry Design Process have been put into practice, resulting in public outcry from Indigenous communities and the withdrawals of support from some of its notable advocates.
For one, the commission has failed to collaborate with and support survivors, families, and organizations. At the inquiry’s sole public meeting thus far, which took place in Whitehorse this May, just 40 people were brought in front of the commissioners to make statements — a number hardly representative of the highly diverse Indigenous population across Canada.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada has also revealed that the inquiry’s legal team was given the ability to decide whether or not potential participants had “enough information” regarding their loved ones’ case to speak in front of the commissioners. This selection process is antithetical to the very premise of the inquiry, which was intended to respectfully engage with all individuals and families affected, regardless of whether their trauma is legitimized by the inquiry’s team.
From a communications standpoint, the inquiry has been relatively inaccessible for those most in danger. Those looking to get in touch or participate in forthcoming public hearings have been required to ‘register’ with the inquiry via email or telephone. The inquiry thus remains virtually inaccessible to women who are homeless or incarcerated and those who live in more remote areas — the exact women designated to be at high risk of suffering the racialized and sexual violence at the centre of the inquiry.
The numerous resignations the inquiry has encountered over the past months have cast the future of its leadership into significant doubt. Most recently, on August 8, 2017, the inquiry’s Director of Community Engagement, Waneek Horn-Miller, resigned. On July 11, 2017, the Ontario Native Women’s Association officially withdrew their support for the inquiry, despite having previously advocated in its favour over the course of 12 years. On the same day, commissioner Marilyn Poitras also resigned.
There is also a strong case for challenging the concept of an inquiry in the first place. When speaking to the main reasons for her resignation, Poitras referenced the “status quo colonial model” that she argued was at the centre of the inquiry. Her claim echoes arguments made by notable academics who have argued that contemporary government-launched national inquiries are problematic and inappropriate methods of pursuing redress for Indigenous peoples.
For example, Sherene Razack argues that by focusing on statistics about death and suicide — rather than narratives of survival that are person- or community-focused — such inquiries perpetuate the trope of a damaged and dying ‘Indian’ race. As Poitras points out in her resignation letter, this narrative neglects to consider how critical a role poverty, racism, and marginalization play in the systemic issues that often cause Indigenous deaths.
In general, contemporary inquiries leave little room for gathering perspectives and knowledge outside Western colonial frameworks. Public meetings like Indigenous community feasts may be excluded from the scope of the research, and ‘atypical’ research subjects, such as sex workers, may be left out of the process altogether. As such, inquiries can be highly problematic, damaging, and antithetical to how and what Indigenous peoples need in order to heal.
Understandably, the failures of the inquiry have therefore sparked substantial criticism from Indigenous communities. Many Indigenous families are calling for a complete overhaul of the process — including replacing the entire inquiry staff — while others have completely lost faith in the initiative’s ability to accomplish its goals.
It is not impossible for the inquiry to succeed in its mandate, but a number of changes are necessary in order for this to happen. The commissioners must take steps to decolonize the National Inquiry for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and accordingly, address the fact that its research and intake process has had an increasingly troubled relationship with the people that have tried to come to the table.
Firstly, the commission should issue an official apology to the people who have suffered from the inadequate job it has done in carrying out their mandate. The inquiry should then produce and release a new detailed action plan — one that ensures all actions, progress reports, and expenditures remain public to secure greater transparency. The plan should also include how the communications team will prioritize maintaining a line of communication for the inquiry, particularly between its team and the affected women and families.
Given that it has failed to properly connect with Indigenous communities, the inquiry should also engage further with relevant organizations and grassroots groups. Organizations doing front-line work for missing and murdered Indigenous women are already accessible to the families of those affected and know how to work with them in a way that centres their trauma but does not force them to relive it. Active collaboration also opens the possibility for organizations to create on-the-ground solutions and policy recommendations as official partners in the inquiry process, rather than as mere consultants or witnesses.
The federal and provincial governments have overlooked the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women for decades. The inquiry has therefore been a long time coming — and it is crucial to set a positive example that can be replicated across the country. Recently, the Ontario government pledged $100 million to combat violence against Indigenous women and girls, and the Québec government launched an inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people within the province. It is crucial that the commissioners recognize their uniquely precarious position, because the inquiry’s eventual results will set the tone for the next generation of reconciliation efforts with Indigenous peoples in Canada.