(MKO Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson at the Assembly of First Nations special chiefs assembly Thursday. Photo: APTN)
As Missing and Murdered Women and Girls Inquiry Chief Commissioner Marion Buller was telling APTN that she would ask the federal government for a two year extension of the inquiry’s mandate, a resolution brought to the Assembly of First Nations December assembly floor by Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins was being debated by the chiefs and proxies.
Shortly after, the resolution endorsing an extension of the mandate was passed.
But an amendment calling for Buller to be replaced was included.
The vote was 48-15. Although there were close to 250 chiefs in attendance for Day 1 of the three-day affair, the quorum is established based on the number of chiefs in attendance each day.
Since the hall in the Ottawa Westin was nowhere as crowded on the assembly’s final day as it had been for the first two days, the 63 votes met the rules for a quorum.
(Inquiry commissioner Marion Buller addressing the AFN Thursday. Photo: APTN)
Buller had just finished addressing the assembly. It had been an emotional couple of hours.
The grief, anger and frustration percolating in First Nations communities across Canada erupted into raw fury at times Thursday morning, with Buller, accompanied by Commissioner Qajaq Robinson, bearing the brunt of it.
Delaware Nation at Moravian Town Chief Denise Stonefish, who is also a member of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) women’s council, predicted on the first day of the assembly that Buller was going to hear some criticism.
“The AFN is prepared to call for some changes to the inquiry process if it is not proceeding in a good way,” Stonefish said.
As the final day began and the chiefs awaited Buller’s arrival, Stonefish reminded them that they had passed a resolution last July calling for the inquiry to be less legalistic and less top-down.
But after Buller’s 35-minute address to the chiefs, the floor was thrown open to comments and questions.
Long lines had already formed at the two microphones provided for people on the floor to address the assembly.
(Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail at the AFN meeting Thursday in Ottawa. Photo: APTN)
Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, an activist from Attawapiskat, went first and she was angry.
“You give us our inquiry back,” she told Buller. “Without ceremony, it’s a gong show.”
She said people from her community had testified at one of the inquiry’s 28 community visits so far. She said they had been left without food, accommodation or travel.
“You left us with no supports whatsoever,” she added. “My nephew is now dead after giving testimony to your inquiry. How do you fix that exactly?”
She said the inquiry had lost records that the family needed.
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson joined in on the attack.
“This issue became a national election issue, an international issue, because of the women, the work they did lobbying for an inquiry,” she said. “You’re making it about yourself and your commissioners.”
Buller sat at head table stoically absorbing the criticism without reaction.
“You’re probably a brilliant person but you’re not a brilliant commissioner,” North Wilson continued. “I’m actually repulsed that you’re here, showing no emotion. We need to see you resign. We see a commission that’s falling apart. You need to go.”
Given the chance to defend herself, Buller chose not to respond to the specific criticisms.
“I’m always grateful for constructive criticism because it’s helpful for the work we do,” she said. “Our work is important. The commissioners and I intend to continue because that’s what the survivors and families are telling us. We intend to continue.”
Assembly co-chair Harold Tarbell noticed there were still long lines at the microphones so he recognized Neskonlith First Nation Chief Judy Wilson.
She referred to reports that the inquiry has cost more than $50 million so far.
“Fifty-four million is for nothing if there’s no justice,” she said. “Canada has to get it right. There’s a stark difference between the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and this inquiry. Why? Is it money? Is it organization? Is it how it’s led?”
Wilson said the scope of the inquiry was too limited and not designed to bring perpetrators to justice.
It was then the Fort William chief got the floor.
“I want to put a resolution forward to ask for an extension because if the inquiry doesn’t go forward it will have failed,” said Peter Collins.
He added that the terms of reference that started the whole process, designed by the federal government, were a failure themselves, seeking to limit accountability for the damage done to thousands of First Nations people.
(Inquiry commissioner Qajaq Robinson sits at the AFN and listens to criticism of Marion Buller and the workings of the commission. Photo: APTN)
Earlier, Buller seemed to sense she would face some criticism.
During her presentation, she pointed out that the job was tough and the commission would continue to need all the help and support it could get.
“The task given to the national inquiry is daunting. We cannot do it alone,” she told the chiefs. “I know that we’ve been criticized and some of that criticism has been valid. But we’ve done a lot of work and it’s only been nine months. Somehow that’s been lost in the translation. The TRC had seven years, we’ve been given two.”
She reported that a new team of statement takers who would seek out incarcerated women and people on the street. The commission has also asked the federal government to come up with more money for after-care for those who do testify.
“We have to dig deeper. That’s what the families and the people in this room have told us,” Buller added.