Skip to main content

Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of Native Women's Association of Canada, says she believes any review mechanism must include civilian oversight at all stages, including while a police service conducts an additional investigation.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The Native Women's Association of Canada is calling for the creation of an independent civilian body to probe police conduct and review specific investigations as part of its recommendations for the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

In a report submitted to the federal government on May 30 and obtained by The Globe and Mail, the organization said the review agency should have "appropriate representation from indigenous peoples," report to the inquiry, and continue its work after the commission concludes. "These investigations could change results in some cases," the report says. "They will also provide a basis for improving systems and practices for handling cases in the future."

The Liberals are still finalizing the details of the inquiry, but an examination of policing has long been deemed a priority by families who question the quality of the investigation into the death or disappearance of their loved one. The 21-page report, which is based on community consultations conducted by NWAC's member organizations across Canada, also noted that some cases might never have been reported because of mistrust of police.

In an interview with The Globe, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said the inquiry is expected to begin before Canada Day. The government considered a launch date of June 21, which is National Aboriginal Day, but Dr. Bennett said the provinces and territories noted the occasion is meant to be a celebration of culture and contribution.

She said Ottawa has been in discussions with the provinces and territories about the leadership and scope of the inquiry, with an eye toward reaching a "reasonable consensus." The government has a suggestion for who should head the commission, but no final decisions have been made, she said. Once the details are determined, cabinet will pass an order-in-council naming the commissioner or commissioners and outlining the terms of reference. The Liberals envision the provincial and territorial governments passing orders-in-council appointing the same commissioner or commissioners to do the same work.

"An order-in-council is the preferred way for all the jurisdictions to allow this to be a national inquiry, instead of a federal one," Dr. Bennett said.

The NWAC report underscores why this is important: Some of the agencies likely to come under scrutiny – child-welfare authorities and the majority of police services, for example – are outside federal jurisdiction.

Clive Weighill, Saskatoon's police chief and the president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said law-enforcement agencies have been discussing what a case-review process could look like. In a recent teleconference among chiefs of major municipal forces and provincial services, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson raised the prospect of creating special provincial and territorial task forces – comprised of civilians and officers from police agencies – to review specific files, Chief Weighill said.

"Nobody has told us how this is going to go, so we're just trying to set up some systems we think might work," he said. "We recognize that [the review mechanism] can't be all police, because people won't trust it. … There has to be a civilian oversight component."

He said the review process suggested during the teleconference could work along these lines: Someone raises a concern at the inquiry over the quality of an investigation; a small bureaucracy of civilians and analysts compiles the person's allegations and sends the information to the relevant provincial or territorial task force, which reviews the file from the police service; if the task force concludes all was done properly, the bureaucracy is notified and the commission is informed; if something should have been done differently, the task force will notify the police service further investigation is required, and will alert the appropriate police watchdog.

Dawn Lavell-Harvard, NWAC's president, said she believes any review mechanism must include civilian oversight at all stages, including while a police service conducts an additional investigation. "As long as there's a sense that it's police reviewing other police, nobody is going to have faith in that," she said.

A consultation kit NWAC provided to its member organizations said one way to prevent the inquiry from becoming overly adversarial would be for it not to make findings of misconduct. The report said the concept of "amnesty" was rejected. (Public inquiries can compel witnesses to testify under oath and produce evidence, but they cannot make legal findings of guilt or liability).

The report, which focuses primarily on the design and logistics of the probe, also recommends that inquiry staff travel to indigenous communities to obtain testimony; victims' families, youths, elders and regions should be represented on the commission; culturally appropriate counselling should be offered to victims' families, regardless of whether they participate in the proceedings; police conduct and specific cases should be reviewed; an independent, federally funded database of deaths and disappearances should be maintained so that the inquiry's effectiveness can be monitored. One group also suggested that the commission have a United Nations observer.

"We just want to make sure that the families' voices are respected," Ms. Lavell-Harvard said.