Commissioners for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) got an earful Monday in Ottawa, and a reminder that the well-being of many families and survivors who have testified will depend on how the commissioners conclude their two-year mandate.
Parties with standing presented closing submissions just a few blocks from Parliament Hill Monday, when legal counsel for a number of groups gave their final statements to the inquiry’s four commissioners.
Suzan Fraser, a lawyer representing Families for Justice—a coalition of 20 families from Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.—told the commissioners that their final report must include a breakdown of the inquiry’s own failings.
“I want you, when you prepare your report and you think about all that you have heard, to ground yourself in the critics,” she said, standing before the commissioners.
Criticism of the commissioners and inquiry has been long and varied.
From scheduling and execution of the hearings, to inadequate support and resources for participants and families, to a lack of communication and transparency — the inquiry has been the focus of attention as much as the survivors and families to whom it was mandated to give a voice.
Families “need to make sure that their loved ones did not die in vain,” Frazer said. “The death, the disappearance, has to have some meaning. And everyone who came before you to tell you their truth — that truth has to have meaning.
“Those stories have to ground your report. Those tears that were cried have to have a purpose. People gave themselves to you completely, without reservation and at a great personal cost.”
Fraser reminded commissioners of the 20 victims and families she represents at the inquiry, followed by list of matters she says the commissioners must include in their report if they want to avoid victimizing families.
“You promised the families that your process would look different. You created advisory committees without letting the families know how people were chosen. You held directed roundtables without being transparent. You promised a forensic file review and no details ever came. You urged families to engage with you, promised them that they would have support, and left them scrambling to attend last-minute hearings with last-minute travel [and] aftercare that was cobbled together,” she said.
Watch Annette Francis’ story on MMIWG hearings.
Last fall the inquiry released its interim report, and in March requested a two-year extension and additional $50 million in federal funding in order to fulfill its mandate.
Canada responded with an additional six months for the inquiry to wrap up its hearings, submit its final report and conclude its work. That deadline is June 30, 2019.
Responding to Families for Justice, Commissioner Qajaq Robins thanked Fraser for her “tough truths,” and admitted the inquiry must “look at the missteps” and the “unfinished business”.
This week’s hearings in Ottawa are the last for the inquiry, which has spent the past two years criss-crossing the country to hear testimony from families of hundreds of Indigenous women and girls who’ve been murdered or gone missing. Many of the cases have never been solved.
But within months the inquiry came under fire over its lack of organization, accused of being insensitive to many of those seeking standing to share their families’ stories.
Meanwhile, the inquiry saw a lengthy series of resignations from staff.
When Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett announced last spring that Canada would not be granting the requested two year extension and additional funding, Commissioner Michele Audette announced she was contemplating stepping down.
She ultimately decided to stay.
But it was moments like that in the inquiry that Frazer said caused agony for her clients.
“When the extension was not granted and you said that you were going to think about whether you were going to continue with the Inquiry, Commissioner Audette, that was like a gut punch to the stomach of the families who gave you their stories,” she told the commissioner, who was joining the hearing by Skype. “They were extremely hurt by that.”
Audette acknowledged the inquiry “could have done better,” but promised the commissioners and inquiry staff will “continue to paddle and bring that report, bring those recommendations, to the federal government, provincial governments, our own governments.”
In closing submissions earlier Monday morning Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) counsel Alisa Lonbard told the commissioners that once they present the inquiry’s final report and recommendations to the federal government, those findings “are not optional” for Canada.
“They are legal imperatives arising from human rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian constitution, including the Honour of the Crown,” she said.
“Canada’s not at liberty to disregard its recommendations or delay their implementation. To do so would amount to the conscious continuation of the human rights violations.”
Catherine Dunn, counsel for the MMIWG Manitoba Coalition, said Monday the inquiry’s final report will do more than place legal obligations on the Crown.
“The purpose of the national inquiry, among many other things, is to create a public record…which will identify 150 years of oppression against one section of Canada — and that is Indigenous people.”
She said the “pathway for change does not come from law, it comes from political will,” but that achieving that political will is an uphill battle.
“The average Canadian who believes that we are a just and free society is wrong,” she said. “And this may be the first time in 150 years that they’ve heard why this is wrong.”
Oral closing submissions for the MMIWG Inquiry continue this week in Ottawa with submissions from more than two dozen other parties with standing.
On Tuesday a lawyer representing the Government of Canada will deliver the federal government’s closing statements.