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Francyne Joe, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, is pictured in Ottawa on Sept. 25, 2016.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The head of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is defending the inquiry's progress after the Native Women's Association of Canada publicly aired frustration over what it sees as delays and a lack of transparency.

NWAC, the leading voice for indigenous women across the country, released a statement Wednesday expressing its disappointment, going so far as to say the inquiry has made "no visible progress" since its summer launch. It marks the organization's strongest rebuke yet of an inquiry it had championed for more than a decade.

"After 11 years of conducting in-depth research, publishing extensive reports and campaigning for a national inquiry to address the alarming rates of violence against indigenous women and girls, we are very disappointed to see that over two months into the two-year inquiry mandate, no visible progress has been made," NWAC interim president Francyne Joe said. "Family members [and] loved ones have been waiting for decades to be heard."

In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Wednesday, the chief commissioner said she understands the frustration and sought to clarify the progress made to date. British Columbia judge Marion Buller noted it has not, in fact, been two months since the $54-million inquiry began, as the NWAC statement says. She said there is confusion among many who think the inquiry started Aug. 3 – the day the federal government made a major announcement appointing five commissioners and releasing the terms of reference. But the official start date was Sept. 1.

She called the past month "an exceptionally busy time" for the commissioners. "In one month, we've accomplished a lot," said Justice Buller, who was in Ottawa for in-person meetings with the four other commissioners, who are based in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec.

By next week, she said, she expects a phone line will be set up so victims' families can get get information about how participate. She also expects that the commissioners' temporary office in Vancouver, which is in a federal building, will be fully furnished and partially staffed (the commissioners hope to move the headquarters to reserve land in Greater Vancouver once space becomes available). Offers were made and have been informally accepted for key executive positions, including a director and a communications person. Those hires will be announced once contracts have been signed and the individuals have notified their current employers, she said. A website, she added, is in its final stages of editing and translation.

As for the hard work of gathering testimony from victims' loved ones across the country, she noted that it takes, on average, roughly six months from an inquiry's start date before hearings are under way. The national inquiry is expected to begin hearings in urban centres and indigenous communities in 2017.

"We want to make sure that we're supporting the families before, during and after the time they speak with us," Justice Buller said. "We also want to make sure that we're holding hearings in culturally appropriate manners … The type of hearing that we have in the North will not necessarily be the same model that we have elsewhere, in, say, the Prairies."

NWAC's statement came on the heels of a national day of vigils held Tuesday to honour Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women. The statement said victims' relatives who gathered at events across the country expressed concern over the pace of the commissioners' work, and over what many have described as a lack of transparency.

"The time has come for the inquiry commission to illustrate its competence in being able to adequately address the systemic causes behind the high rates of violence against indigenous women and girls," the statement said. "The immense responsibility associated with the tremendous task of addressing one of the gravest human-rights abuses in Canada's history leaves no time to waste. The time to begin this important work is now."

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