Bella Bresse wipes away a tear as she speaks about her murdered daughter, Evangeline Billy, at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls taking place in Whitehorse, YT., Wednesday, May 31, 2017. Jonathan Hayward/CP Cabinet ministers Carolyn Bennett, Jody Wilson-Raybould, and Patty Hajdu were all on hand that day at an emotional event in Gatineau, Que., at the Canadian Museum of History. The Liberal government was delivering on one of its key campaign promises, revealing details of its much-anticipated inquiry into Canada’s 1,200 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The transfer of power to five independent commissioners took place inside the museum’s Grand Hall, overlooking the Ottawa River—a solemn space that oozes symbolism, with its six-storey view of Parliament, works by Haida icon Robert Davidson and, troublingly, perhaps, one of the world’s larger collections of totem poles.
The commissioners named included some of the best and brightest from the country’s Indigenous and northern communities. Marion Buller, a Cree jurist who sits on B.C.’s provincial court and member of the Mistawasis First Nation, would be chief commissioner. Michèle Audette, an Innu powerhouse who served in Quebec’s Charest government as an associate deputy minister, and ran unsuccessfully for the federal Liberals in 2015, would be the inquiry’s unofficial second-in-command. Qajaq Robinson, a Nunavut-raised lawyer with a white-shoe national firm and, at 36, the inquiry’s youngest commissioner. Together, they would often butt heads with the Liberals’ choice from the Prairies: Marilyn Poitras, a Harvard-trained law professor from the University of Saskatchewan. Commissioner Brian Eyolfson is known as the inquiry’s “true lawyer”: donnish, quiet, utterly overshadowed by his fellow commissioners. The Ontario human rights lawyer, who is two-spirit, is a member of the Couchiching First Nation and served as vice-chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario until 2016.
It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the moment. Perhaps nothing in the last decade had embittered Indigenous peoples more than white Canada’s failure to address the staggering number of Indigenous women brutalized and lost to violence, and what those losses sowed: grief, shattered families, suicides and cycles of despair. Police were often late to launch investigations, many of which were haphazardly carried out; and politicians just didn’t seem to care. Only three years ago, survivors, families of the dead and missing, and the wider Indigenous community had been galled to hear Stephen Harper, the former prime minister, say an inquiry into the issue wasn’t “high” on “his radar.”
It seems additionally tragic, then, that in the 13 months since, the hope and spirit of Gatineau seems to have all but disappeared. From that day forward, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has been plagued by internal power struggles, high profile resignations, leaks, and lost friendships, having held a mere three days of public hearings. Recent months have seen the rapid-fire departures of Commissioner Poitras; Michèle Moreau, its executive director; two communications directors; its director of operations; a manager of community relations; and its director of community relations, Mohawk and former Olympian Waneek Horn-Miller. Canada’s MMIW inquiry is falling apart before it even begins In late July, the Assembly of First Nations passed a resolution asking the Trudeau government to reset the inquiry, and alter its mandate and process. That month, Sheila North-Wilson, the influential grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, called for Buller’s resignation and for a “hard reset” to the inquiry. Several weeks earlier, an open letter signed by more than 30 advocates, Indigenous leaders and family members urged the inquiry’s chair to “mitigate the damage and fundamentally shift [her] approach,” suggesting the […]
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