Volume 51, Issue 2: Spring 2017

Unravelling the secrets of the National Inquiry

Photo by Obert Madondo

During Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election campaign, he promised that, if elected, the Liberal’s first order of business would be to conduct a national inquiry into the thousands of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada. This was a welcome change from the former prime minister Stephen Harper’s position that not only would his Conservative government not hold an inquiry, but that it really wasn’t “high on his radar.” For their part, the Conservatives tried to blame First Nations men for the phenomenon and the RCMP tried to blame Indigenous women and girls for their alleged “high-risk” lifestyles. Harper’s epic political defeat resulted in a new Liberal government that could move ahead with the national inquiry. But, 17 months later, the inquiry still hasn’t started and is shrouded in so much secrecy that many families and advocates are growing increasingly skeptical.

It is exactly because police agencies across the country have routinely kept the families of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls — and the public — in the dark that this phenomenon has been allowed to continue. Despite having conducted a public engagement process to get feedback on how to construct the inquiry, the drafting of the Terms of Reference and selection process for commissioners were done in relative secrecy, ignoring much of the input they received. Were it not for media leaks, most of us would have been blindsided when they announced the Terms of Reference (TOR).

Even though many families, Indigenous women, advocates, experts, First Nation organizations and human rights groups shared their concerns over the leaked TOR, they were met with silence. The “soft launch” of the inquiry left us with more questions than answers about both the process and when the inquiry would actually start.

Even after the soft launch, there was little communication from the commissioners. Their public inquiries line was redirected to Indigenous and Northern Affairs, raising concerns about the inquiry’s impartiality. After five more months of protracted silence and rising pressure from the families and advocates, the commissioners held a second soft launch in February 2017, but still could not confirm a start date. Seven months and $6 million into the 2-year, $56-million inquiry and we are still in the dark.

But even assuming the inquiry starts soon, the process itself raises serious questions. How will witnesses be protected from police retaliation when they share their experiences? How will the information shared by witnesses at the inquiry be used, stored and/or shared with other government departments and enforcement agencies? Who will be granted standing to appear and who will be provided with funding for travel and legal representation? How will the commissioners decide which individuals have more “substantial and direct” testimony than others? While Bill C-51, Anti-Terrorism Act does not at first glance appear relevant to this inquiry, we do know that Government Operations and other enforcement and intelligence agencies watch the activities of some of those involved in murdered and missing Indigenous women rallies, marches and advocacy. Will witnesses continue to be subjected to surveillance for their advocacy in this issue?

While some want to give this much-needed and long-sought-after inquiry the benefit of the doubt, the wounds from the botched Oppal Inquiry (B.C.’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry) are still fresh in our hearts and minds. Much hope was put into that process as well, which turned out to be a disastrous and oppressive forum of police and their lawyers overtaking the inquiry. Most intended participants felt compelled to pull out of the inquiry en masse. Unfortunately, Wally Oppal was the federal government’s advisor on the design of this national inquiry.

The only thing we know for sure at this point is that the inquiry only has 122 names in its database and the federal government isn’t sharing information. The last thing anyone wants is to start the investigation process over or conduct hearings without having properly prepared individuals about their rights and risks associated with participating. A trauma-informed, culturally-based process would have ensured we had access to this information already.

The inquiry’s secretive process has resulted in a loss in faith by many would-be participants. Several commentators have said that being trauma-informed should not be an excuse for not getting started. Some family members feel that all this secrecy is re-traumatizing them. Even the former Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Murray Sinclair, told the Inquiry to just start already.

After everything that we have gone through to get this inquiry, Indigenous women and girls deserve nothing less than open, honest and transparent process where they can exercise their voice in a place of safety and without fear of reprisal.

Pam Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She has been a practicing lawyer for 18 years and is currently an Associate Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.