The national inquiry established to examine Canada's disproportional number of missing and murdered indigenous women will not expand its mandate to include the murders and disappearances of indigenous men, but it will explore ways that the violence against male victims underpins the female tragedy.
Critics have pointed out the homicide rate for aboriginal males is three times the rate for aboriginal women and that, when the crimes are committed against men, they are less likely to be solved. And people who have lost fathers, sons and brothers have asked that the inquiry be broadened to explore all aboriginal deaths and disappearances, regardless of the sex of the victim.
But the lead lawyer for the commission of inquiry, which held a news conference Tuesday to explain some of the parameters governing how the $53.8-million fact-finding exercise will be run, made it clear that the experiences of women and girls will remain the central issue when testimony from family members, survivors and communities begins this spring.
"The national inquiry will stay focused on its mandate to inquire and to report on systemic forms of violence against indigenous women and girls in Canada," Susan Vella told reporters. However, she said, the inquiry may well hear from indigenous men and boys to understand whether their circumstances contribute to the "vulnerabilities" of indigenous women and girls.
Chief Ernie Crey of Cheam First Nation in British Columbia – whose sister, Dawn Crey, was killed by serial killer Robert Pickton – is part of a group called Expand the Inquiry that urges that men be included. Mr. Crey said Tuesday he understands that it would be difficult to change the inquiry's mandate.
"My main concern is that the families of missing men and boys who feel they may have something to contribute, and who would like to talk to the commissioners in their hearings, feel welcome to do so, that they feel included and that they're not turned away at the door," he said in a telephone interview.
"We won't see another inquiry like this probably for another generation, if ever," Mr. Crey said, and "you end up with half a picture if you don't address the issue of men and boys."
It was made clear at the news conference that Mr. Crey is right: This will be an inquiry like no other.
The commissioners estimate that they have already spent a little less than 10 per cent of the total budget – more than $5-million – on setting up their offices, purchasing computers, paying legal bills and covering the costs of getting ready for the hearings.
Some of the families of victims have expressed frustration at what they see as a lack of progress and a lack of communication from the commission since its members were announced last August.
"We are very much aware of the impatience and frustrations felt by families and organizations," Marion Buller, the B.C. Provincial Court Judge who is the chief commissioner, said at the news conference. "We share those same feelings because there's nothing that we would like to do more than to get the hearings under way. But we also know we have to do the hearings and our work in a thoughtful and purposeful way that, of course, is culturally appropriate and trauma informed."
The commission's health team has been putting supports in place for those who will testify, Justice Buller said, the research team has been reviewing the massive amount of existing evidence about missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, the legal team has been setting the rules for the hearings, and the community relations team has been learning the protocols, ceremonies and languages of the various communities where testimony will be heard.
"Information may be received by the commissioners through various different mediums ranging from people telling their stories to the commissioners directly, to people providing the information by way of a written statement, to trained statement takers, or through forms such as poetry, art, and audiovisual statement," Ms. Vella said, adding that the normal rules governing evidence will not apply.
The hearing rooms are unlikely to be set up like courtrooms, she said. There will be no cross-examination. There will be ceremonies, and storytelling, and families who wish to testify together may do so. In addition, unlike any previous national inquiry, each province and territory will be able to compel evidence from institutions and government agencies within their jurisdictions.
"We know the importance of not only listening but actually hearing. We must find the truth," Justice Buller said. "We must inspire meaningful change."