GATINEAU, Que. – Family members wiped away tears Wednesday as the federal government outlined the terms of an inquiry into the phenomenon of missing and murdered aboriginal women – along with a price tag nearly $14 million higher than expected.
Three cabinet ministers were on hand inside the Museum of History’s great hall – a space bedecked with long houses, totem poles and artwork dedicated to Canada’s First Nations – to hand the reins of the nascent inquiry to independent commissioners.
Those commissioners will provide concrete recommendations to federal, provincial and territorial governments about how to deal with the disproportionate rates of violence and crime against Canada’s indigenous women and girls.
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould heralded Wednesday’s events as evidence that the Liberal government is committed to honouring the lives of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Wilson-Raybould, a former B.C. regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, appeared to be nearly overcome with emotion at one point as she looked out across a room filled with the family members of missing and murdered women.
By digging for root causes, including past and present systemic and institutional barriers, the commission will play a key role in defining actions needed to protect the human rights of indigenous women and girls, she said.
“We know that the inquiry cannot undo the injustices that indigenous peoples have suffered over decades, but we can review what’s happened in the past, reflect on our present circumstances, and chart a path moving forward.”
Nor will the federal government wait until the end of the inquiry to take action to help curb the violence, said Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.
The process – designed to be arm’s length from government once it is up and running on Sept. 1 – is expected to last at least two years and cost at least $53.8 million – $13.8 million than was originally expected.
Bennett said the inquiry will reflect what the government heard during pre-inquiry consultations: that policing and child welfare policies will be put under the microscope, that it will not take a one-size-fits-all approach and will take into account regional differences when crafting recommendations.
As part of Wednesday’s formalities, ministers delivered to the commissioners a gift basket made of birch bark, lined with sealskin and wrapped in a red Metis sash. Inside was a digital copy of all the pre-inquiry research.
The five commissioners responsible for carrying out the inquiry are:
– Chief commissioner Marion Buller, B.C.’s first female First Nations judge;
– Michele Audette, a former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada;
– Qajaq Robinson, an Ottawa-based, Nunavut-born lawyer who practices civil litigation with an emphasis on aboriginal law;
– Marilyn Poitras, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan professor with a focus on indigenous law;
– Brian Eyolfson, a First Nations lawyer based in Ontario.
Under the Inquiries Act, the commissioners will have the same powers as any court in a civil case to enforce the attendance of witnesses and compel them to give evidence. They can also examine all papers, documents, vouchers, records and books belonging a public office or institution.
Family information liaison units will also provide centralized resources for families of missing or murdered indigenous women and girls and gather information during the inquiry process.