The chief commissioner of the long-awaited national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls is being described as a rebellious insider – a veteran B.C. judge who once diagnosed the justice system's "callous" bias against aboriginal people.
These two sides of Marion Buller, the first indigenous woman appointed to British Columbia's Provincial Court, will combine to provide the inquiry with her legal smarts and an understanding of the relevant First Nations reality, observers say.
"She is able to walk in both worlds," Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in an interview on Wednesday.
Four other commissioners have been named to the inquiry, which has a $54-million budget and two-year timeline.
Justice Buller, appointed to the bench in 1994, is expected to bring to the proceedings her forthright concerns about the way justice is administered in Canada.
"I have seen her develop and grow over the years," said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth who is a judge on leave from the Saskatchewan Provincial Court.
"While she's an insider in the justice system – a sitting judge in a mainstream justice system that many indigenous people do not feel adequately expresses their experience – she has tried to reform within that system," said Ms. Turpel-Lafond, who has known Justice Buller for about 30 years.
Following a 1990s-era public inquiry into the justice system's treatment of aboriginals in British Columbia's Cariboo-Chilcotin region, the attorney-general of the day appointed her to assess aboriginal legal issues.
Justice Buller's conclusions were blunt. She wrote of a "cold, callous and often incomprehensible" justice system biased against aboriginals.
"I found a bureaucratic quagmire stewing in the ugly built-in racism that is an echo of Canada's colonial past," she concluded, offering 37 recommendations.
She also played a key role in the creation of B.C.'s First Nations Court, which Provincial Court Chief Justice Thomas Crabtree described Wednesday as a "problem-solving court" that sits in various communities around the province to hear criminal cases of those with a First Nations background.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said Justice Buller is not complacent. "Sometimes people who have worked a long time in the system are seen as consummate insiders who are apologizing and explaining the system. Other people are actually very good students of it to see the deficiencies. I feel, in Marion's case, that she comes from the [latter] camp."
After her appointment last week, Justice Buller told a news conference that her team's goal in the "very important" inquiry is to make concrete recommendations that will ensure the safety of "our women and our girls in our communities."
"We are committed to doing the difficult work ahead of us. The spirits of the missing and murdered indigenous women will be close in our hearts and in our minds as we do our work."
She was not available for further comment.
According to a 2011 article in Canadian Lawyer magazine, Justice Buller was called to the bar in 1988 after receiving a bachelor's degree in anthropology and then a law degree from the University of Victoria.
She told the magazine that she went to law school expecting to work in contracts and wills, but then a turning point came. "In my first year of law school, like everyone else, I had a criminal law course and the professor made it all come alive for me, and I knew that's where I belonged – in a courtroom."
During a 2012 aboriginal justice forum in Kamloops, Justice Buller spoke of another turning point. According to a report on the proceedings in The Kamloops Daily News, she said that around 2001, she became dissatisfied with the way First Nations people were sentenced.
She described an epiphany when she asked an offender to share his life experience with the court, and recalled the change she could see in him as a result. "Everyone else in the courtroom thought I'd completely lost it," she said. "But that was when I changed."
Justice Buller maintains a band membership in the Mistawasis First Nation in Saskatchewan, where the band's chief says her family lived before leaving for economic opportunities elsewhere.
Chief Daryl Watson said Justice Buller has not forgotten her roots. She visits once or twice a year to see how the community is doing, offers advice on justice and "everyday common-sense issues," and generally stays in touch.
"She is a grounded individual, She is well aware of all the issues that we, as First Nations people, experience," Mr. Watson said, adding that she balances the "punitive" reality of being a judge with an understanding of why people are offending, including homelessness and addiction.
He said he was not surprised to hear that Justice Buller would lead the national inquiry. "I knew Marion was the best, logical choice for that position."
So did Chief Ernie Crey, who said he has always been impressed with Justice Buller. The remains of Mr. Crey's missing sister, Dawn, were found on the farm of convicted serial killer Robert Pickton.
"I have always said [the inquiry] should be led by an aboriginal woman with credentials. What I meant by credentials was someone with a background in law, preferably from the bench," Mr. Crey, head of the Cheam First Nation near Chilliwack, said in an interview.
"So it couldn't have turned out better."