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Missing, murdered women inquiry must look beyond systemic causes

Women drum following the announcement of the inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec on Aug. 3, 2016.

Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Trudeau government mandated its commissioners to look into the systemic. They had better not ignore the specific.

The inquiry into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women that the Liberal government in Ottawa launched on Wednesday is supposed to look at systemic causes, and hear the families of victims. Good.

But the inquiry will fail its task if it does not find a way to delve into the details of specific cases to answer the question: What happened?

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Were indigenous women preyed upon? Are there more cases than we know about? Were their cases ignored? Did police fail to investigate with zeal because the victims were indigenous women? Did the justice system turn a deaf ear to the families of victims?

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There's no way to answer those questions without the tricky work of delving into cases.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett gave powers to the five commissioners, led by B.C. judge Marion Buller, that they can use to do that work. But Dr. Bennett left it up to the commissioners to decide whether they will really make this a fact-finding mission. And the inquiry will be a failure if they do not.

The commission is directed to provide the recommendations "on actions to remove the systemic causes of violence," and it is authorized to hear from the families and communities about their experiences. But Dr. Bennett's mandate did not do enough to direct the commissioners to investigate.

Politically, the launch of the inquiry is itself important. Mr. Trudeau's Liberals could not rebuild the relationship with indigenous people without it. A large, identifiable group of Canadians believe the justice system ignored them.

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For years, relatives of victims and groups of indigenous women, notably the Native Women's Association of Canada, argued that something was happening to indigenous women, that they were disappearing and often ending up dead, and police and officials were not paying much attention. Former prime minister Stephen Harper's refusal to hold an inquiry, as they demanded, seemed like more unwillingness to listen. So having a forum for victims' families to be heard is a major step.

But the inquiry must do more than provide a hearing. On Wednesday, the NWAC outlined what families of missing women who were dissatisfied with the police response felt was going on: Investigations were not opened, they were not done thoroughly, evidence was not collected, "and the conclusions were rooted not in evidence but in racism and both systemic and individual biases."

The inquiry surely has to examine those questions. It cannot just hear families recount their stories and repeat what they know. It has to look into what happened in some of those cases, review investigations, ask police questions and find out whether those cases were handled differently from the cases of missing white suburban kids.

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That is hard. Cold cases are cold. Answers might be elusive. The two-year inquiry cannot investigate each of the 1,181 cases the RCMP identified in 2014. But the commissioners cannot write a report on what happened without looking into some.

It is not feasible to do what the NWAC really wants – to give the commissioners power to order investigations re-opened. That could create enough legal hurdles to kibosh the whole inquiry. Instead, the commissioners can refer new information or concerns back to police or provincial authorities. But the commissioners have the power to subpoena and compel witnesses to testify, and they will report. The question they must answer is: How were these cases handled? The problem is that the government's mandate does not put that question front and centre.

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Systemic causes? The government gave the commission orders to look into the systemic causes of all forms of violence against indigenous women and girls, "including underlying social, economic, cultural, institutional and historical causes." Tackling big questions is worthwhile, but if they are divorced from the fact-finding, they can veer into academic exercise, with broad phrases and vague recommendations.

And if, in the end, the commission writes a report about systemic causes but cannot tell us much about what happened, that will be the mark of failure.

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