Nation to Nation
It was just over a year ago when Sheila North categorically called for Marion Buller to step down as the chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls (MMIWG).
North didn’t do it in a press release, or in an interview with a reporter, but to Buller’s face.
“I mean no disrespect to you, because you’re probably a brilliant human being, but I tell you, you’re not a brilliant commissioner for this inquiry,” North said in the main hall at the Assembly of First Nations annual gathering in Gatineau, Que. last December.
Buller didn’t step down even though the AFN chiefs passed a resolution at that gathering for her to do so.
The inquiry and Buller kept going. She said she didn’t consider walking away.
“Never, the more the criticism, the more the personal attacks on me, the more strength I got to move forward,” said Buller on Nation to Nation airing tonight (6:30 p.m. ET).
And now the inquiry is almost over with final statements being heard in Ottawa this week after holding meetings throughout the country hearing from hundreds of survivors and family members of lost loved ones. They had submissions from experts and elders, as well various organizations and groups.
The final report is due by April 30, but will it hit the mark?
“We intend, by how we word our recommendations, that they are actionable, immediate, concrete recommendations,” said Buller.
But at the same time she has regrets.
“We’ve really been limited in the scope of the work we can do,” said Buller.
The inquiry had asked for a two-year extension but the Trudeau government agreed to six extra months.
“Time has always been our biggest challenge. I wish the government had given us the two years we asked for because then we could have got into more depth and more breadth in our investigation of the issues that are affecting Indigenous women and girls,” she said, adding they would have looked more at women in prisons, elder abuse and child welfare.
But these weren’t the inquiry’s only challenges.
Dozens of employees quit, including Marion Poitras, one of the five commissioners, who had issues with the structure of the inquiry. And while they are called “critics” of the inquiry, the people who spoke out against it had mostly been directly affected by MMIWG and wanted more out of it.
That includes being able to force police to reopen investigations.
So when Sheila North walked up to the microphone and challenged Buller at the AFN gathering Dec. 7, 2017, as Buller sat up on the stage, the criticism was reaching its pinnacle.
North said on Nation to Nation she had no regrets.
“No, I don’t. I think that she needed to hear the voice of the people that were feeling the same way I was. It wasn’t just me feeling that way,” said North, who was grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okamakanak when she confronted Buller.
North said while she and others gave the inquiry the benefit of the doubt when it began, it became clear to them it was “ugly and flawed.”
“It was increasingly getting more disappointing and more concerning because we knew it was just a short amount of time this was going to be happening,” she said. “It actually felt like the women and the survivors and families were on trial.”
As for Buller, North said she should have known they had serious problems when staff member after staff member quit.
“The tone is set by the leader and if people are jumping ship and not having faith in the process then that should say a lot,” she said. “There was a cause for concern there and that is why a lot of us spoke saying something has to change.”
As for her hope in the final report, North said she has concerns.
“I don’t know what the report is going to find especially given the attitude towards Indigenous leadership,” she said.
If there is one area both Buller and North agree upon is that MMIWG isn’t just an Indigenous problem.
“This is a national crisis that requires a crisis-like response,” said Buller.
After this week the inquiry will begin preparing the final report.
And at the end of June the lights in the offices will be turned off.
Everyone just hopes the same doesn’t happen to the report.
“We are trying to avoid, what some people will say, will be the biggest disappointment,” said Buller.
By that she means the report just sits on a shelf like the many that came before it.