Gladys Radek will always remember her niece Tamara Chipman who disappeared in 2005 along Highway 16, the so-called highway of tears, in northern British Columbia.
“She was 22 years old when she disappeared and she remains missing today,” said Radek. “She was a young mother of one little boy and my brother’s only natural child and loved by a huge family.”
The grief of losing her niece forced her to take action. Radek co-founded Walk4Justice, a campaign to raise awareness and seek justice for missing and murdered women. In 2008, the first walk saw women march more than 4,000 kilometres, from Vancouver to Ottawa, and collected more than 3,000 names of women who have disappeared or been murdered.
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Now in 2016 the Liberal government is grappling with the tough question of how to create an inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.
In February, there were reports the number of missing and murdered indigenous women could be as high as 4,000, much higher than a roughly 1,200 figure the RCMP has previously stated.
As Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould , and Minister for the Status of Women Patty Hajdu finished their cross-country consultations ahead of formally announcing an MMIW inquiry this summer, the question becomes: how can it be successful?
“There have been a lot of inquiries before, and I would like to see the recommendations to be implemented and the resources provided to implement them,” Radek said. “We need cultural healing and wellness centres properly funded and run.”
A look at First Nations inquiries
In 1991, The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was created on a wave of public goodwill under the government of Brian Mulroney. When the report was issued five years later none of the recommendations were implemented by the Liberal government.
A 2012 report by former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal into how authorities handled cases involving missing and murdered women in the wake of the Robert Pickton case produced 65 recommendations. Many groups, including the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, also tore into it for its lack of inclusiveness.
A poll from earlier this month showed that while a majority of Canadians support a federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, fewer than half believe that the endeavor will prompt lasting change.
Oppal told Global News that if the Liberal government’s inquiry wants to be successful they have to avoid covering the same ground as the 2012 report.
“My advice to the government has been don’t go over the same ground that we went over,” he said, citing his report that totaled 1,400 pages, 93 days of testimony, and close to 90 witnesses. “There is no great mystery as to what the root causes of all of this is, and that is it’s poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, violence against women, education and all of those issues. That is what makes those women vulnerable.”
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“This inquiry can help by getting the views of some of those communities and talking to more individuals,” he said.
While the details of the MMIW inquiry has yet to be announced, Oppal said while it will be tempting to focus on individual cases it should have a broader scope.
“If you start getting into individual files and if the police are subjected to criticism as to what they did or didn’t do, then you’re going to have lawyers in the room,” he said. “And then the thing will be endless.”
MMIW inquiry needs to focus on ‘healing’
Sylvia Maracle, executive director of the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, says this inquiry “must absolutely better reflect our community.”
“That it is not just a fact-finding mission,” she said. “It actually has to bring closure, or move people towards closure, certainly for some of the families and loved ones who have lost people.”
Maracle said that looking five years down the road she hopes the federal government implements some type of strategy similar to a recent $100 million announcement by the Ontario government to tackle violence against First Nations women.
“That it has components that promotes healing and promotes justice,” she said. “I want to see public education from the perspective of young people, young women, is the conversation we’re having.”
She added that more supportive legislation and improved socioeconomic status will help people escape cycles of violence and poverty.
Global News reached out to the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs but the minister was not available for an interview.
A spokesperson directed Global News to a February statement issued on behalf of Ministers Bennett, Hajdu, and Wilson-Raybould
“In the coming months, we will be announcing details of the inquiry, and on how the inquiry will contribute to the Government’s commitment to reconciliation and a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada,” part of the statement said. “Real change will require commitment and participation from all levels of government, National Aboriginal and other organizations, front-line service providers, communities and individuals working to a better future for Indigenous peoples in our country.”