The inquiry that is looking into Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women says privacy and process issues have left it with the names of fewer than 100 victims' families in its database just two months before commissioners will start hearing from those who have lost loved ones.
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.
Meanwhile, family members of victims have started to express concern that they have heard nothing so far from the inquiry and fear they will not get a chance to give their testimony when commissioners start taking evidence in May.
A commission lawyer says it is "absolutely" frustrating that the inquiry's list of missing and murdered Indigenous women is so short when other lists are so long. "Obviously the national inquiry wants to hear from all of the families that have lost a loved one or Indigenous women and girls that are survivors themselves," Christa Big Canoe told The Globe and Mail.
But Ms. Big Canoe said the federal government, which collected names of victims' family members during a pre-inquiry design phase, will not share those names with the inquiry because of privacy concerns.
"I think where the problem is occurring, but I can't say with 100-per-cent certainty, is that the releases [the victims' families] gave to the government didn't cover transfer of that information to a third party," she said. As a result, she said, families who stepped forward before the inquiry actually began may mistakenly believe they are on the inquiry's list when they are not.
For its part, the government says it has handed over to the inquiry a full database of information collected during pre-inquiry engagements, including recordings of meetings and correspondence.
"There are no restrictions on the commission using this information to contact potential witnesses for their inquiry," said Shawn Jackson, a spokesman for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).
During the pre-inquiry phase, the Indigenous Affairs department also assisted in making travel arrangements and keeping registration lists of participants, Mr. Jackson said. "However, given the number of people who chose to participate anonymously, INAC is prevented by privacy rules from transferring that personal information," he said.
The department, he said, has told the national inquiry about the practices, resources and methods it used during the pre-inquiry to identify participants, and continues to offer assistance in that respect.
As of Friday, the inquiry's database contained just 90 names.
The Native Women's Association of Canada says thousands of Indigenous women and girls were slain or have disappeared in recent decades. A database created by Ottawa researcher Maryanne Pearce in 2013 contained 824 names. The Globe and Mail has a list of about 1,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women. And the CBC has made public the profiles of more than 250 victims and possible victims.
Ms. Big Canoe said the inquiry is aware of the existing databases, some of which are open to the public. But they do not contain contact information for family members.
In addition, she said, the inquiry is relying on family members who want to testify to step forward rather than making them feel pressed into taking part.
"The entire process is voluntary," Ms. Big Canoe said. "We are not going to contact or cold-call a family and say do you want to participate. We're trying to approach it in a very trauma-informed manner...."
The inquiry will soon start radio ads, some of which will be broadcast in Indigenous languages, to tell people how to participate. There is also a family advisory circle that is helping to connect with relatives, Ms. Big Canoe said.
The inquiry's first report, an interim document setting out preliminary findings and recommendations, must be submitted before Nov. 1, 2017. The final report is due a year later.
Romeo Saganash, the Indigenous Affairs critic for the New Democrats, said "it is a concern" that the inquiry list is so short at this point in the process.
"This is a file where we can't afford not to do it right," Mr. Saganash said. "I am totally surprised that they are just at this stage at this time. They should be more advanced than that."