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Canada Missing, murdered Indigenous women inquiry hears about challenges justice officials face in the North

Vast geographic distances and high staff turnover have made it more difficult for justice officials to help Indigenous women and girls in the North, a national inquiry was told Monday.

A week-long hearing of the missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry began in Calgary with a look at the role of prosecution and victim services. The hearing is the first of two to delve into how systemic issues can contribute to the vulnerability of Indigenous women. Mental-health care and housing are scheduled to be discussed later in the week. A session on policing is to take place in Regina next month.

“This is going to provide us with a foundation for our recommendations ultimately and our final report,” inquiry chief commissioner Marion Buller said.

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Leanne Gardiner with the Northwest Territories Justice Department told the hearing the biggest challenge is building trust with victims and their families. When there is only one victims services provider in a community, staff turnover can be disruptive.

“At some points, it has to start from scratch,” she said.

Some people in remote areas have no way to quickly get face-to-face services, Gardiner said.

“The reality is that we don’t have victims services providers in every single community, in person ready to support someone. And crime and victimization happens in every single community.”

The Northwest Territories has 11 victims services providers who work through eight community organizations. Gardiner said those providers have been creative helping people by phone or teleconference, but she said that in person interaction is always preferable.

Poor weather and spotty Internet connections can also pose a challenge, she added.

“As northerners are apt to do, you adjust to the circumstances that you’re in.”

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John Phelps, Yukon’s chief federal prosecutor, said his office deals with a hefty caseload.

“We deal with a significant percentage of violent and sexualized violent crime within the territories compared to the national averages,” he said.

Crown witness co-ordinators have made things run more smoothly by helping victims navigate the justice system and by acting as a liaison with lawyers and judges, Phelps said.

But not enough co-ordinators are Indigenous, given how many people from those communities are victims of crime, he said. All of the Crown witness co-ordinators in Nunavut are Indigenous, but in the Northwest Territories only one of seven is. In Yukon, it’s one of five.

Keeping in contact with victims has also been a challenge.

“Either we don’t have adequate information coming from the investigative agency or, because of the lapse in time, victims have moved on.”

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Northern prosecution offices also have a tough time recruiting and retaining staff, he added.

The inquiry has already heard from 1,200 people across the country whose loved ones have been killed or have disappeared.

“Families and survivors have told us about a lack of information coming from service providers and families have also told us about lack of timely response,” said Buller, who added that a lack of cultural understanding is also a problem.

“Families and survivors have told us time and time again that there weren’t translators available, that elders weren’t consulted, that there was also a lack of understanding that in some communities women certainly cannot talk about domestic violence, for example.”

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