The Manitoba government is urging Ottawa to include someone from the prairie province on the national commission of inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women, noting that a federal minister recently called Winnipeg "ground zero" in terms of the growing awareness about the violence.
Ottawa has yet to announce who will lead the inquiry, but provincial Justice Minister Heather Stefanson sent a letter to federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould on July 14 asking her to consider appointing a Manitoban.
"It is our government's intention to move forward with an order in council supporting the federal government's establishment of a national inquiry in a timely manner," says the letter, obtained by The Globe and Mail. "However, I would like to take this opportunity to urge you to consider the inclusion of a commissioner from Manitoba, given the unique perspective and expertise that our province is able to offer on this important issue."
In an interview, Ms. Stefanson said she has not seen the list of potential commissioners but it is her understanding that there are no Manitobans on it.
Sources have told The Globe that the draft list of commissioners includes a B.C. judge, a francophone advocate and one lawyer from each of Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nunavut. Four of the contenders are said to be women.
Ms. Stefanson said she believes the list has yet to be finalized and is hoping someone from Manitoba will be represented in the end. The province is doing outreach with the indigenous community and putting together a shortlist of candidates to present to the federal government.
Ms. Stefanson said Manitoba should have a "seat at the national commission table," in part because of its sizable indigenous population, its over-representation of indigenous children in the child-welfare system, and the fact that it has already conducted an extensive inquiry into the death of an indigenous girl in provincial care.
Manitoba was also home to Tina Fontaine, the Sagkeeng First Nation 15-year-old whose 2014 slaying reignited calls for a national inquiry, and to an indigenous teen who narrowly survived a horrific attack and went on to become one of the country's most visible champions of a national inquiry. In her letter to Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Ms. Stefanson noted that federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said earlier this year that Winnipeg is in many ways "ground zero in terms of the awareness that all Canadians now have."
Ottawa's self-imposed timeline for the launch of the inquiry has been pushed back on several occasions while the provinces and territories review the proposed terms of reference, which set out the inquiry's mandate. "The federal government is working with the provinces and territories to answer any questions and address comments," said Carolyn Campbell, Ms. Bennett's spokeswoman. "We look forward to being in a position to announce details of the inquiry soon."
Ms. Stefanson said Manitoba wants the national probe to avoid duplicating previous studies, such as the province's $14-million inquiry into the 2005 death of Phoenix Sinclair in provincial care, which in 2013 culminated in 62 recommendations (nearly two-thirds have yet to be fully implemented).
"Our main focus is to avoid overlap and duplication, but in areas where [child-welfare] hasn't been studied, we want to co-operate in any way we can," she said, adding that the province is currently consulting with indigenous leaders about the terms of reference.
Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson, who represents 30 northern Manitoba communities, said she recently urged the province to come to an agreement on the inquiry's mandate and to move forward with an order in council, which will allow the national commission to pursue matters of provincial jurisdiction.
"I trust that our province understands the seriousness of the situation and that they'll fully participate," Ms. North Wilson said.
"We have a lot to say, we have a lot to learn and we have lots to contribute."
Bernadette Smith, an indigenous advocate whose sister, Claudette Osborne-Tyo, went missing in Winnipeg in 2008, said that while families and indigenous leaders are eager for the inquiry to launch, it is integral that the various levels of government take great care in laying the groundwork for it.
"We've been waiting a long time," she said. "So for me, a few more weeks is worth it to get it right."