First Nations chiefs are confronting the head of the troubled inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women, demanding that she resign and that the commission extend the time allotted for its work.
Speaking ahead of a 48-15 vote pushing for Marion Buller's replacement, Sheila North Wilson, the Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, said it was time for a new commissioner. "You are probably a brilliant human being, but I tell you, you are not a brilliant commissioner for this inquiry," Ms. North Wilson said at a special gathering during an annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations.
The call for Ms. Buller's resignation comes after months of complaints about delays and poor communications on the part of the inquiry and after some family members of women who have been murdered told Ms. Buller, who attended the AFN meeting on Thursday morning, that the inquiry treated them callously.
One woman from Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario whose daughter was slain, and who said she appeared before the inquiry in September, broke down in tears before the chiefs and accused the commissioners of having been disrespectful to the dead and of leaving those who testify without adequate support.
It will be up to the federal government to decide on whether Ms. Buller should go and whether an extension will be granted. Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, has given no indication she will replace the commission chair but her office said Thursday she will consider giving the commissioners more time if requested to do so.
The AFN resolution was moved by Judy Wilson, the Chief of the Neskonlith Indian Band and a member of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. It calls for the families of victims from across Canada to come together to decide how the inquiry should go forward.
The families need "more direct and full engagement and involvement which hasn't been happening with this national inquiry," Ms. Wilson said. "The inquiry needs a reset."
Ms. Buller must step aside "because she is the chief commissioner responsible for how this is all unfolding and there have been a lot of requests before, during and after [the commission started hearings] that she hasn't been responsive to," she said.
In British Columbia, the province with the highest number of missing Indigenous women in Canada, repeated letters have been sent to the inquiry to ask for hearings in Vancouver but there has been no response, Ms. Wilson said.
In addition, she said, when the chiefs of the AFN voted at a meeting in July to support the continuation of the inquiry under Ms. Buller, they drafted a list of changes that would have to be made, but those items have not been addressed.
Ms. Wilson's resolution came after Ms. North Wilson (no relation) took the microphone at the meeting to demand that Ms. Buller step down.
Ms. North Wilson said she is distraught that many of the families who have testified before the inquiry to this point have done so before television cameras.
"I don't like seeing women crying on the news every day. It's heartbreaking," she later told reporters.
In addition, she said, she believes the commissioner has already heard enough testimony to be able to provide some of the answers about why so many Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing and should be speaking publicly about that, but has not done so.
Ms. Buller, who listened stonily to Ms. North Wilson's call for her resignation, said she and the other commissioners would continue their work.
"I am always grateful for constructive criticism because it is helpful to the work that we do," Ms. Buller said. But "the commissioners and I intend to continue. The families and survivors all across have told us how important this work is and how we need to continue to shine a light on the truth, to make our final report and recommendations, because they deserve nothing less."
Ms. Buller left the room before the chiefs voted to have her replaced.
Some of the chiefs who attended the meeting on Thursday took the microphone to argue against the call for Ms. Buller to step aside.
Donald Maracle, the Chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte in southeastern Ontario, said it was too late in the process to start over. "I think if you get rid of the commissioner, it will paralyze the operation and slow things down," Mr. Maracle said.
He suggested those who have concerns should meet with the commissioners to set things back on track.
But most of the chiefs sided with Ms. Wilson and Ms. North Wilson.
The $53-million commission was a Liberal campaign commitment in the last federal election. It has submitted an interim report and the final report is due at the end of next year.
Many Indigenous groups and families of missing and murdered women spent years lobbying for an inquiry to explore the root causes of the tragedy and to propose measures to reduce the deaths and violence. But families of victims have also been among those who have, in recent months, been calling for the replacement of Ms. Buller and a reset of the inquiry.
"It is really important that a reset is discussed to have a more meaningful outcome and justice," Ms. Wilson said. "I think all the groups are agreeing there is more time needed but everybody is saying there have to be changes that were not happening because of the lack of leadership of the chief commissioner."