A large coalition of family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women, Indigenous leaders and others is asking the federal government to refuse a request for additional time and money that was made by the inquiry examining the root causes of the problem.
In a strongly worded letter sent this week to Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, the nearly 200 signatories say there has been a lack of engagement on the part of inquiry commissioners and insufficient supports provided to family and friends who have testified at one of the hearings.
“The national inquiry has bulldozed through our communities and an extension will continue to exacerbate the emotional and psychological burden on the very people it intended to solace,” the letter says. “A recurring narrative from communities has emerged: They came, they took our stories, they left.”
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Under those circumstances, the letter says, “the inquiry must complete its work in a timely manner. Without extension. Without additional resources.”
The coalition includes people such as Sheila North Wilson, the Grand Chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, Ava Hill, the Chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River, and Pamela Palmater, an Indigenous activist who is a professor at Ryerson University, as well as numerous friends and family members of women who have been murdered or have gone missing.
It was among the first groups to complain last year that the inquiry was in disarray and not communicating adequately with those who have lost loved ones. In August, it asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a “hard reset” of the inquiry process under a new set of commissioners.
The inquiry, which has now heard from close to 880 witnesses in communities across Canada, has been a source of controversy for nearly a year. Many staff members and one commissioner have resigned.
The four remaining commissioners said earlier this month that they can complete their mandate in credible fashion if Dr. Bennett would extend the deadline, which is now set for late this year, to Dec. 1, 2020, and provide them with as much as $50-million in addition to the $54-million that is already budgeted.
Dr. Bennett is expected to respond to that request shortly.
“Minister Bennett continues to receive input from a variety of families, individuals, and partners on the national inquiry’s request for an extension,” her spokesman said in an e-mail on Thursday. “She is discussing this with Indigenous partners, provincial and territorial governments, as well as cabinet colleagues.”
But the writers of the letter say the inquiry commissioners have shown themselves to be tone-deaf to the needs of family members and others who have shared the stories of missing and murdered loved ones.
“Families and grassroots communities have been met with utter silence from the inquiry,” the letter says. “The inquiry’s process completely defies its mandate to be trauma-informed and culturally safe.”
Maggie Cywink, whose sister Sonya was found dead in Southwestern Ontario in 1994 and who was among the letter’s signatories, said part of the problem is that money for counselling those who have testified has not been adequately dispersed.
“Families have to fight for that aftercare money,” Ms. Cywink said. “And people have been denied.”
Chief commissioner Marion Buller said on Thursday in response to the letter that commissioners value and listen carefully to all feedback they receive from families and survivors, but they believe the request for an extension is necessary to do justice to the mandate they have been given.
“With more time, the national inquiry will be able to develop a better understanding of the underlying causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls, listen to and consult with various institutions and experts, and make effective recommendations to address them,” she said. “It will also enable us to hear from more people affected by this national tragedy and ensure their voices are reflected in our recommendations to government, including vulnerable populations such as Indigenous women and girls who are incarcerated, homeless, involved in the sex trade, being trafficked or living in violent circumstances.”