The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is making “community visits” in Nova Scotia this week, as it seeks to put a crisis of confidence behind it.
The inquiry’s director of health, Terrellyn Fearn, said officials begin three days in Halifax on Tuesday, before moving on to Membertou and Millbrook First Nations.
“We’ve talked to family and survivors on what kind of process they would like, and this is the process they felt most comfortable with, and that’s what we implemented,” she said Monday.
The visits are being held to prepare for nine community hearings starting this fall across the country, Fearn said.
For weeks, the commission has faced questions from concerned family members who say they have lost faith in the process, which is expected to take at least two years and cost $53.8 million.
In an open letter released last week, some family members called on the commission to start over from scratch, citing the resignation last month of one of the commissioners, Marilyn Poitras.
Some Aboriginal leaders have argued the inquiry has not put families first, and fails to respect their voices.
Fearn said Monday the inquiry is attempting to address concerns through these meetings.
“It’s through these community visits that we’ll actually be able to meet families and survivors in person, answer their questions and start to build a relationship with them so they’ll feel comfortable enough to engage in the process,” said Fearn, herself a member of the Glooscap First Nation in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.
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Journalists have been asked to stay away from the sessions, which are being held at undisclosed locations. Inquiry officials are meeting with families and survivors who want to register with the inquiry, or have questions.
She said the inquiry has seen major growth in participation in the last month, and now has almost 500 registrants.
“Our shift in this new direction is illustrated by the vast numbers of increasing participants,” she said.
Families and survivors can speak to the inquiry’s health support staff to discuss their options and possibly begin telling their stories ahead of the hearing, she said. Legal counsel will also be available if participants wish.
“I know there has been some concerns around the legalistic process of the hearings; this part of the community visit and our intake process is really focused around the family and the survivor. And they’re really the one in the lead.”
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde has acknowledged that First Nations leaders are divided on what to do about the troubled inquiry. Bellegarde is steering a middle course, saying the commission needs to focus all its energy on ensuring the stories of families are front and centre, adding it is critical it improves communications.
Last month, commissioner Michele Audette told the AFN that there was a lack of communication at the beginning of the inquiry process, in part because the commissioners were told not to speak or go to events. But she said they “were too silent,” which was a mistake.
She told reporters the inquiry has “been in crisis mode for quite a few weeks now.”
Fearn said her own family has experience with the issues being explored by the inquiry, and she has a responsibility to them.
“I know there’s a lot of good constructive criticisms out there … there’s also a lot of good things that are happening, and there’s a lot of support from families and survivors,” she said.
“By the very nature of the work, within Canadian society we are going to be pulling up the roots, shaking the roots of the marginalization of Indigenous women. And whenever you pull up those roots from the ground, it unsettles the earth. And I think a lot of what we may be seeing now is some of that unsettling.”