(Maxime Goforth’s daughter Kelly Goforth, 21, was murdered by Regina serial killer Clayton Eichler, 35. She wants the families to pick the inquiry commissioners.)
APTN National News
The remaining four commissioners for the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls inquiry faced open calls for their resignation Wednesday during an emotional afternoon at the Assembly of First Nations’ annual general assembly in Regina.
The AFN will vote Thursday on whether the commissioners should be replaced.
First Nations leaders from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, speaking on behalf of the families of the murdered and missing, along with the AFN’s elder, said it was time for the commissioners to step aside and for the inquiry to undergo a hard reset.
First Nations chiefs and proxies at the assembly are expected on Thursday to vote on a motion calling for the commissioners to be replaced. APTN saw a draft version of the motion which called for Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde to ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to replace the commissioners and reset the inquiry.
A spokesperson for the AFN said the motion could not be released publicly until it was first distributed to chiefs.
Two inquiry commissioners appeared before the assembly on Wednesday afternoon after meeting privately with families from Saskatchewan at a friendship centre in Regina.
Inquiry Commissioner Michele Audette said the inquiry was in “crisis” but a vote against the commissioners Thursday would only be taken into consideration.
“It will be a discussion we will need to have collectively,” said Audette. “I respect their choice…. Collectively, there will be pressure in your thinking, there is something there we need to look or examine in a ceremony. Oops we lost the faith of groups.”
Audette said she was given an eagle feather by one family and she would need to go back and consult with them and undergo ceremony before she makes any decision on her future with the inquiry.
Commissioner Brian Eyolfson said he was getting private messages of support despite the public calls for his resignation.
“I am still getting messages of support, so I think it is premature to do anything, but I am going to take a lot of stuff I heard today to heart and give it a lot of thought and talk to a lot of people and see what happens,” he said.
Pressure has been mounting on the commissioners and the Liberal government to salvage the inquiry following a series of high profile resignations, including by inquiry commissioner Marilyn Poitras.
While AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, along with Federation of Saskatchewan Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron have publicly challenged the assembly to support the remaining commissioners, other regional leaders are backing resignation calls.
Manitoba AFN regional Chief Kevin Hart, whose portfolio includes the inquiry, said he supports calls for the commissioners’ resignation and publicly blasted the inquiry over its lack of transparency and accountability in its use of $53 million allotted by the Liberal government for the task.
“The families and the women have spoken, you have heard the majority of families not only from the Manitoba region, but across the settler state of Canada, and you hear from the different families from all the different regions across the country, the clear indication is there needs to be a reset,” said Hart. “Obviously the commissioners are being asked to step down. I have to support the families in that endeavour…. If the majority of our chiefs do support the call for the resignation and the restart of the inquiry then the commissioners need to do the right thing, and this government.”
Kawacatoose First Nation Coun. Lillian Ewenin, whose sister’s 1982 Calgary murder is still unsolved, said the commissioners need to go.
“I do not make this call lightly, but with all the heaviness of those, including myself, who have worked tirelessly to bring this inquiry into being,” said Ewenin, whose community is based in Saskatchewan. “I believe wholeheartedly in the need for an inquiry, but the commissioners of this inquiry have maintained a misguided approach that is directly rooted in a colonial mentality.”
Ewenin’s son was murdered in 2015.
Six Nations Chief Ava Hill, whose Iroquois community near Hamilton, Ont., has the largest on-reserve population in the country, said the families of the murdered and missing in her home want the commissioners to resign.
“I am here to speak on behalf of some of the families of my community,” said Hill. “They have been looking forward to this inquiry and I am taking my direction from them as I speak here today and they have lost confidence in the commissioners, they have lost confidence in the process, and they are asking as well, and supporting some of those families who are saying that the commissioners should step down and there should be a restart.”
Hill said the issue is also dividing families.
“This is a terrible start for an inquiry that is so important to so many people. The families want to have their stories told,” she said. “If they inquiry goes ahead as it is, there are going to be families who want their stories told who are not going to participate. I say to the commissioners, take all of these words to heart and look within yourselves to see if you can consciously move forward and do justice for these families.”
AFN Elder Elmer Courchene, who rarely intervenes publicly in the proceedings of the assembly, took to the microphone to speak about the death by suicide of this two-spirited son as part of an impassioned plea to the commissioners to listen to the families and step down.
“I buried my son, who was two-spirited,” said Courchene. “A lot of people don’t understand what it feels like. I can feel you people. We need to stand behind them, we have no choice. We have to. You don’t know what it feels like to lose someone that is very special. Commissioners, I will tell you this, listen to the voices you have heard today, they are asking you to step down. Think about and honour it. It’s not easy. But maybe there are other ways you can help them. Even outside of the process.”
Earlier in the day, at a friendship centre in Regina, Eyolfson and Audette, along with Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, met privately in separate meetings with about 50 family members from the region.
Benentt told the families that she had confidence in the commissioners, but admitted they needed to better communicate better with the families.
“I think the commissioners know they have to communicate better and deal with families in an ongoing way,” said Bennett, according to a video of the closed-door meeting shared with APTN.
Bennett said her government would not be waiting for the inquiry’s findings to act on the needs of the families.
“But separate from the work of the commission we also want to make sure that the government doesn’t have to wait for a report again from yet another commission. Their report in November will give us their analysis of all the previous reports and what we don’t have to wait for to do again,” said Bennett. “But hearing all of you, the healing of families…is something we don’t have to wait for a report to tell us that this is important and that the work you do with one another is hugely important.”
Outside the meeting, sitting in the grass, Maxime Goforth, whose daughter Kelly Goforth, 21, was murdered by Regina serial killer Clayton Eichler, 35, said family members should be involved in the selection of the commissioners.
“(A family member commissioner) could have done a lot better job because they lived it and they’ve been there. You have to understand where we are coming from, be in our shoes. You have to live it,” she said. “It is very disappointing. After my daughter died I advocated for the inquiry and I was happy when it was announced. Now it is confusion and it’s disappointing.”
Michele Bear’s daughter Richele Bear, 23, was also murdered by Eichler. She said it upset her the inquiry isn’t focusing on the conduct of the police and the justice system.
“It should be focusing on how the system failed our children, how the system failed our families, how the investigations were handled. My daughter’s investigation, I believe, was not taken seriously right from the start,” said Bear. “When I was approached by the Regina police about my daughter, it was a phone call. There was no officer at my door telling me my daughter was missing.”
Bear’s daughter Richele’s body has never been found. Police determined she was dead from photos found on Eichler’s cell phone. Bear said she identified her daughters through the photos.
Krista Shore was 12 when her mother Barbara Stonechild was murdered in 1996 in the Saskatchewan capital city. Shore said she’s lost faith in the commission.
“I don’t have confidence in it. It was hard to come out today,” she said. “I just came out to share my anguish, my frustration, my righteous rage with what’s going on in the inquiry.”
Shore is a relative of Neil Stonechild, the teenager who froze to death after he was taken on a starlight tour by Saskatoon police in 1990. She said murdered and missing men should also be included in the inquiry’s mandate.
For Delores Stevenson, aunt of Nadine Machiskinic, 29, who died in 2015 after falling 10 stories down a laundry chute at the Delta Hotel in Regina, her “righteous rage” was directed at the AFN. The chiefs organization chose the Delta as its main hotel during its annual general assembly, holding a networking social and regional caucuses there. Many chiefs are also staying in the hotel.
Stevenson said her family is suing the Delta Hotel.
“For me, it was a slap in the face. When you are staying at the Delta Hotel and you are putting millions of dollars back into where there was an Indigenous woman who was murdered,” she said. “The hotel denied any responsibility in terms of negligence.”
Stevenson said the hotel’s security camera which could have captured her niece’s final moments were not working the night she died.
A coroner’s inquest jury concluded it could not determine how Machiskinic ended up in the laundry chute. The conclusion overturned a finding by the Chief Coroner that the death was accidental.
Regina police located two men who were with Machiskinic the night she died. They were questioned and released, said Stevenson.
Stevenson said she found little support from the First Nations leadership following the tragedy.
“I have been given the run-around by my leaders who I went to,” she said. “Where is the leadership who talks about supporting the issues around this?”