The organization that was the loudest voice in calling for a public investigation of why so many Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada says the inquiry launched to determine the societal causes of the tragedy has, so far, been a dismal failure.
The Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) will issue its second report card on the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women on Tuesday, a copy of which was obtained in advance by The Globe and Mail. The discouraging appraisal follows repeated complaints by advocates, family members and others that the process announced in late 2015 is falling far behind its intended pace and that communications to those who are most anxious for its findings have been insufficient or non-existent.
"This many months into the inquiry, we cannot afford to be nice any more," said Francyne Joe, NWAC's interim president. "Families are upset, they're getting discouraged and we need to see action on the part of the commissioners to ensure that this inquiry is going to be family-first and is going to be respectful to the missing and murdered women."
On Monday, families of victims, Indigenous leaders and advocates for those who have lost loved ones wrote an open letter to chief commissioner Marion Buller saying they fear the $53.8-million inquiry is in "serious trouble" for many reasons but, primarily "a lack of communication that is causing frustration, confusion and disappointment in this long-awaited process."
The commission did not respond to that letter by deadline on Monday. But the report from NWAC echoes its complaints.
On 10 out of 15 measures – from structure to communications to transparency to respect for the families of victims – the inquiry was given failing marks. In three areas it received cautions. In two others, NWAC said there was not enough information to make an assessment. It was given no passing grades.
The report says, among other things, that the inquiry has failed to announce its timelines or issue regular progress reports and has left families and the media in the dark. The commissioners, it says, have created a sense of "desperation and urgency" by not making themselves available and not communicating regularly, and the money spent to date has not been best used to allow families to engage in the process.
NWAC charges that the inquiry is not being set up to take into account the trauma suffered by victims' loved ones, and that it has failed in its mandates to promote reconciliation, contribute to public awareness and to allow families and community members to share their experiences and views.
Communication has been the biggest failure, Ms. Joe said. The media, not the commission, she said, informed NWAC last week that the lone opportunity for families to testify this spring will be at the end of May, and the remainder of family testimony, which had been expected to continue throughout the summer, would not be scheduled until fall.
"My biggest fear at this point is that this is not going to be a family-first inquiry, that families are going to come third," Ms. Joe said. "There's a lot of discussions around the technical side of things, there's a lot of discussions around the legal side of things. But there's not enough discussions as to how families are going to be part of this. And they have been the ones fighting for this inquiry for decades."
A spokeswoman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said on Monday that, despite the concerns being raised, the minister believes enough time and resources have been made available for the inquiry to do its work.
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. Families and advocates want to know why Indigenous women and girls are victims of violence far more often than other women in Canada.
The letter from families and others, which was posted on Monday to the website of Indigenous artist Christi Belcourt – a long-time advocate for the environment and Indigenous people – says people across the country are loudly raising alarms.
The letter's signatories, which include more than 50 people and organizations, say it is clear that the approach of the inquiry must be "fundamentally shifted" and asks the chief commissioner to respond by May 22.
Ms. Belcourt said in a telephone interview that the letter came together in about a week and it was easy to obtain signatures. In fact, she said, more families and Indigenous leaders stepped forward in support of it on Monday after it was made public.
People wanted to give the inquiry time to work, Ms. Belcourt said, "but it's simply got to the point where it's become very obvious that it's unravelling, and that it's not functioning all."