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National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Chief Commissioner, Marion Buller speaks during an interview with The Canadian Press, in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday August 31, 2016.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

The national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, which was supposed to start hearing from family members of victims this spring, is putting off most of that testimony until the fall, another delay in a process that has been criticized for its slow pace.

The five commissioners originally said they would begin their inquiry into the systemic causes of the violence by hearing from families of the women who have been murdered or are missing and from those who survived an attack. Those hearings were supposed to begin in May and continue until fall.

But the commission said in an e-mail this week that the only hearings with family members scheduled for this spring will take place in Whitehorse in the last week of May. "The other community hearings will take place in the fall," the e-mail said. "Expert panels will take place during the summer."

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An interim report on the $53.8-million inquiry is required on Nov. 1. It will have to be written in September to allow time for translation, making it unclear how it can reflect the voices of family members beyond those who attend the hearings in Yukon.

The reason given for the change is that many of the families who want to testify will be out on the land and could not attend a hearing during the summer.

But large numbers of the families of victims live in urban centres. There are no concrete plans yet for the fall hearings. And it is unclear who is expected to make up the expert panels the inquiry plans to hear.

The inquiry fulfills a Liberal government campaign promise and comes after years of lobbying by Indigenous groups and others.

But the loved ones of victims have repeatedly questioned how long they must wait to testify.

Ernie Crey, the Chief of the Cheam First Nation in British Columbia, whose sister, Dawn Crey, was among the victims of serial killer Robert Pickton, said in an interview that the families he has talked to have expressed concern about the "stop-and-go start" to the commission's work.

"I don't know how to explain that, except I do know it's causing a lot of frustration and anxiety in and amongst the families and the aboriginal communities," Mr. Crey said. "There is a lot of confusion in the Indigenous community across the country. There may be good reasons why it's taking place, but I don't know what they are and no one else apparently does either, except the commissioners."

Much criticism has also been directed at the lack of information flowing from the inquiry to family members and the public.

"There has been significant concern with communication," said Dawn Harvard, the president of the Ontario Native Women's Association. "This whole process has to be about the relationship between the commissioners and the families and the communities, and that's all about communication."

The commission fired its first communications director, Michael Hutchinson, a former news anchor with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, in February. And this week, Sue Montgomery, formerly a journalist with the Montreal Gazette who was acting as a senior communications adviser, tendered her resignation.

There is a new director of communications but responses to questions from The Globe and Mail have been slow and lacking in much real information.

A 2014 report by the RCMP said the force had identified nearly 1,200 Indigenous women and girls who disappeared or were slain in recent decades, and some critics suggest the Mounties' list is far from complete.

In March, the inquiry said it had the names of just 100 victims' families on its list of potential witnesses. Even though the government gathered names during the pre-inquiry phase, privacy laws prevented it from passing them on to the inquiry itself.

The inquiry said in its e-mail this week that the list of names has grown to 294.

But Dr. Harvard said there is still concern that some of the families who contacted the government during the pre-inquiry phase may mistakenly be waiting for the inquiry to reach out to them.

Inquiry officials went to Whitehorse in April to take part in regional advisory meetings that were supposed to be precursors to hearings where the process for collecting testimony would be determined. But because the Department of Indigenous Affairs conducted a lengthy pre-hearing process last year, family members made it clear to the commissioners that they were no longer interested in planning.

They urged the inquiry to get on with its actual work and to start taking testimony.

As a result, all of the additional regional advisory meetings were cancelled and, at the moment, the inquiry said in its e-mail, "no other dates or schedule(s) have been confirmed yet for community visits and community hearings."