The chief commissioner of the national inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women is assuring victims' families that their concerns about policing will be examined as part of the historic probe, which begins Thursday after years of grassroots advocacy and sustained international pressure.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail on the eve of the official launch, Justice Marion Buller said victims' relatives will have a platform to air grievances about the way police handled their loved one's case. Her team will then forward any new information to the relevant law-enforcement agency.
"I think it is, first of all, important that they know they have the opportunity to speak," said Justice Buller, of the B.C. Provincial Court. "Secondly, that when they do speak, they will be heard."
The inquiry's terms of reference, which were crafted by the federal government and based on cross-country consultations, direct Justice Buller and the four other commissioners to examine the systemic factors behind the disproportionate rate of violence against indigenous women and girls. Justice Buller, who in 1994 became British Columbia's first female First Nations judge, said the weight of the task is not lost on her. "It's a big responsibility, there's no doubt about that," she said. "However, I'm anxious to get on with the work."
There is much to be done even before the commission starts gathering testimony in cities and indigenous communities across the country. There are headquarters to set up in Vancouver. There are researchers and administrative staff to hire. There is a website to set up, travel to book, existing studies to pore over and protocols to establish. The commissioners – Justice Buller, former Native Women's Association of Canada president Michèle Audette, Nunavut-born lawyer Qajaq Robinson, Métis law professor Marilyn Poitras and First Nations lawyer Brian Eyolfson – are slated to hold their first formal meeting next week, in Vancouver.
Their work, to be carried out over the next two years, will be closely scrutinized. Advocates and victims' relatives have been calling for a national inquiry into the crisis for decades. Many have little or no trust in the police services tasked with investigating the deaths and disappearances, citing institutional racism and sexism. The RCMP released an unprecedented report in 2014 that said there were 1,181 police-reported homicides and long-term missing-person cases involving indigenous women between 1980 and 2012, but some believe the number is closer to 4,000.
A former civil and criminal lawyer, Justice Buller was instrumental in launching British Columbia's first First Nations court dedicated to restorative justice in sentencing. She served as president of Canada's Indigenous Bar Association and has been a member of the B.C. Police Commission. Her experience in the justice system, she said, has taught her the importance of understanding trauma and its impacts.
"Rather than asking a person, 'What's wrong with you?' she said, "the question is, 'What happened to you?'"
The terms of reference direct the commissioners to be "trauma-informed and respect the persons, families and communities concerned." It notes that "qualified, trauma-informed" people should gather statements, and that "trauma-informed and culturally appropriate counselling services" should be made available to victims' families. Justice Buller, a member of Saskatchewan's Mistawasis First Nation, said the inquiry's work will require a "careful, kind approach" to guard against re-traumatizing those who participate.
Asked whether her mandate should have included the creation of an independent civilian body to review cold cases – as many victims' relatives had hoped and expected it would – Justice Buller said "that's really a question to ask the politicians." She noted the commission has "no control" over what police services do with any information her team passes along pertaining to individual cases.
Justice Buller said there are several challenges that lie ahead, but one of the most significant is the sheer size of the country. The commissioners, who are currently based in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan, will travel to gather testimony, though they have not yet decided whether they will be assigned certain swaths of the country. The commissioners also need to determine the process for selecting victims' relatives to sit on regional and issue-specific advisory bodies.
"There's a part of me that wishes we could hit the ground running," Justice Buller said. "But there's another part of me that says we have to be thoughtful and measured in our planning."