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On a conference call with victims’ relatives, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett reassured families that the national inquiry will cover policing, and that the terms of reference have not yet been finalized. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
On a conference call with victims’ relatives, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett reassured families that the national inquiry will cover policing, and that the terms of reference have not yet been finalized. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Families feel shut out after draft mandate of missing, murdered inquiry leaked Add to ...

Relatives of victims are upset that the national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women is not poised to re-open cold cases or make findings of police misconduct, with some feeling shut out of the process by a government that promised to put the families first.

The draft terms of reference, which were leaked and posted online Wednesday, does not explicitly mention a review of police policies or practices – an omission that victims’ families find deeply concerning and that has left many questioning Ottawa’s pre-inquiry consultation process. On Thursday morning, the Liberal government held a conference call with a select group of victims’ relatives to discuss the draft document.

Two people who were on the call said Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett reassured the families that the national inquiry will, indeed, cover policing, and that the terms of reference have not yet been finalized. Ottawa’s self-imposed timeline for the launch of the inquiry has been pushed back on several occasions while the provinces and territories review the proposed mandate.

“I believe and I hope that this is only the preliminaries and that they will work with us to make changes that will work for everybody,” said Brenda Wilson, whose sister Ramona Wilson was killed in B.C. in 1994. “They really need to include the families when they’re making decisions on different things.”

Related: The Taken: The story behind The Globe's investigation into the serial homicides of indigenous women

Aside from the draft mandate posted online, The Globe has reviewed another draft, which is said to be a more recent version.

The two documents are largely the same but differ in several ways: The newer version says the “Government of Canada” has committed to launching an inquiry and taking effective action, whereas the earlier draft said the participating provincial and territorial governments were similarly committed; both versions direct the commissioners to review certain existing reports, but only the newer draft includes B.C.’s Oppal inquiry into how police handled the cases of women who disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside; the newer version specifically says the national inquiry should look at sexual violence; and the newer version notes that statement-takers should be qualified and trauma-informed.

The never version, like the earlier one, also does not appear to grant the commission authority to compel police forces to take action on specific cases.

Dawn Lavell-Harvard, the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said her understanding is that the federal government planned to brief indigenous organizations and victims’ families on the terms of reference before releasing them. This week’s leak, she said, disrupted what Ottawa intended to be a “respectful” process. She said she hopes indigenous leaders and victims’ relatives will still have a chance to provide feedback before the mandate is finalized.

“If [Prime Minister Justin Trudeau] is talking about a new era of respectful relationships, then this is one of the first tests of that statement – that we not simply get a briefing, but that it’s actually meaningful dialogue,” Ms. Lavell-Harvard said, adding that NWAC heard Thursday from several concerned families. “There’s a lot of confusion, and a lot of panic.”

Ottawa has been in contact with some victims’ relatives to give them a heads-up about the timing of the official launch of the inquiry. But it is unclear how, exactly, the government decided which families it will include in the announcement, or which ones it invited to Thursday’s conference call.

“We take this very personally,” said Bernie Williams, who was among those who called into the briefing. “These are our families.” Ms. Williams said she has lost several close relatives to violence; in some cases, she believes investigators unduly ruled the deaths not to be suspicious.

Bernadette Smith, whose sister, Claudette Osborne-Tyo, disappeared in Winnipeg in 2008, said victims’ relatives on the conference call stressed the need for transparency and a “families-first model.”

The federal government did not respond to questions about who was on the call or whether the terms of reference might be altered to address the concerns of victims’ families.

However, when asked why the call was held, Dr. Bennett’s spokeswoman said families are central to the department’s work.

“Providing families information on the progress of the inquiry and how it will lead to recommendations to end the unacceptably high rates of violence against indigenous women and girls is an important element of our work,” spokeswoman Carolyn Campbell said in an e-mail. “We’re continuing to do that.”

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