The problem-plagued inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women has postponed a hearing scheduled for Thunder Bay in September over concerns that the community will not yet be emotionally ready after the death of a woman that may have been racially motivated and the unexplained drownings of First Nations youths.
Hearings in Saskatoon and in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, have also been delayed because they would have coincided with other events taking place in those communities.
The Thunder Bay hearing was to have been the first held after complaints about delays and disarray at the inquiry, the resignation of one of the five commissioners and public calls by some family members of victims for a complete reset of the process. The inquiry's arrival in the Northern Ontario city that was planned for the week of Sept. 10 will now take place the week of Dec. 4.
"At the request of families, organizations and communities, the National Inquiry is rescheduled," the inquiry said in a statement.
Bernée Bolton, the inquiry's director of communication, said the commissioners understand the need to be accommodating because the hearings are being conducted for the families of the victims.
"This is all part of our adaptability and flexibility," Ms. Bolton said. "We fully expected there would be some of that happening."
The large Indigenous community in Thunder Bay has been rocked by the death this month of Barbara Kentner, a 34-year-old First Nations woman who was hit by a trailer hitch that was thrown from a passing car in January.
Melissa Kentner said she heard someone in the vehicle say "I got one" as her sister was struck. An 18-year-old man who was in the car has been charged with aggravated assault.
In May, the bodies of 14-year-old Josiah Begg and 17-year-old Tammy Keeash, were pulled from Thunder Bay's rivers, bringing to seven the number of Indigenous teens who have drowned in the Northern Ontario city since 2000.
At the same time that Thunder Bay's Indigenous community has been dealing with those losses, the inquiry has been the target of criticism for the amount of time it is taking to begin its work. To date, a hearing in Whitehorse in May has provided the only opportunity for family members to testify.
But, after the commissioners announced in the first week of July that they would make Thunder Bay the first stop of a fall tour, the criticism only grew louder.
The Ontario Native Women's Association (OWNA), which was one of the organizations that called for the inquiry to be dismantled and restarted, issued a letter to the commissioners on July 11 saying they should have known that Thunder Bay is in the midst of dealing with gangs, homicides, violence and the sexual exploitation of Indigenous women.
After the death of Ms. Kentner, the drownings of the teenagers, the four-year solitary confinement of an Indigenous man in the Thunder Bay correctional facility and the lack of confidence expressed by First Nations organizations in the city's police, "how can the inquiry think that this is the right place to start the fall inquiry hearings?" the OWNA asked.
In addition, the group said, there are roughly 12 Indigenous organizations on the ground in Thunder Bay and, as of July 11, none had been contacted by the inquiry to discuss the emotional supports that would be needed by the families of the victims before and after they testify.
Anna Betty Achneepineskum, the Deputy Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), which represents 49 First Nations communities North of Thunder Bay and has its offices in that city, said the organization had asked the inquiry for a postponement.
"We felt that the timeline that they were providing to us for the community consultation and the hearing dates would not be suitable for us to ensure that our families were able to participate," Ms. Achneepineskum said on Thursday.
NAN covers a large geographical area and there are 44 families in the region who have indicated that they want to take part, she said. "It would have been very challenging," Ms. Achneepineskum said. "We needed more time to have that process with them."
In addition, Ms. Achneepineskum said, NAN has asked for funds to help it provide emotional support to the families but the money has not yet been approved. "We have to go though all this and deal with that trauma and grief," she said. "And to send them home [after testifying], there has to be a safety net in place."