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Without a focus, MMIW inquiry will slide toward irrelevancy

Generally, when 22 or more people quit or are laid off from a small organization in the span of just over a year, it's never a good sign.

It would usually point to deep dysfunction, if not complete chaos and upheaval. All are terms being used to describe what is going on inside the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Almost from its inception, it's been enveloped by controversy, leaving chief commissioner Marion Buller to try and convince a skeptical public and angry Indigenous community that all will be fine – eventually.

I'm not so sure.

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There is plenty of blame to go around here, starting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This inquiry was designed, in part, to shame his predecessor, Stephen Harper. Mr. Harper did not believe such a commission would provide any great revelations about why native women were disappearing in this country beyond what we already knew. The reasons are myriad: horrible conditions in native communities that force young women to venture out at young ages, alone, only to be lured into unhealthy lifestyles in big cities, under the control of older men who want to use them as temporary profit centres. Drugs and alcohol all play a role.

Globe editorial: Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women can still make a difference

We know, too, about the often dystopic conditions in the communities these women and young girls come from, and the role that colonialism and residential schools and the Sixties Scoop played in ruining generations of Indigenous men and women. We're aware, also, that police haven't always pursued these missing cases as vigorously as they might have and that needs to change.

On top of that, there have already been big, expensive, and well-received inquiries, like the five-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) and B.C.'s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. Former B.C. attorney-general Wally Oppal, who led that province's inquiry, was steadfastly against the national commission now under way, saying there was nothing more to examine. Instead, it was time to act. They should have listened to him.

It's no wonder that some of those working inside the MMIWG task force have lamented the lack of a clear direction. What is its job? The mandate as spelled out by the government seems ridiculously amorphous: examine the systematic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women, girls and members of the LGBTQ community. If that wasn't enough, the commission also wants to look at police conduct.

This springs, in part, from testimonies given by family members of some of the missing who are angry that the police didn't investigate their cases properly. Now they want justice. They want the commission to find out what happened, and make these police detachments accountable for what they have done. I hate to say it, but the commission is not going to start reopening cold-case files and relitigating the circumstances around a particular case.

Otherwise, we're going to be here for decades.

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Let me save the commission some time here: in many cases, the police almost assuredly did not pursue, as vigorously as they should have, cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. In some instances, the reason is old-fashioned racism; in others, resources; in others still, the reliability of witnesses and the likely chances of a successful prosecution. In many cases, police are simply not welcome in First Nations communities. And those are just some of the reasons.

If you want to examine this phenomenon in greater detail, fair enough. Make it the subject of an independent probe, don't add it on to the to-do list of an already overburdened commission desperate to find its bearings. It's ridiculous.

The commission just "celebrated" its one-year anniversary. I'm not sure there was cake and candles. There will likely be many more birthdays before the commission is finally done its work. There will be many more heartbreaking stories to hear, too, stories that will form a big part of the many volumes of work the commission will undoubtedly produce one day.

But those stories won't serve much purpose if they are merely destined to be encased in dust-collecting tomes buried on the shelves of our national archives. That is the worry that many people have about this commission right now; a well-intentioned project gone awry, one that may end up causing more harm than good and ultimately be worthless in the end.

The inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women is calling for the creation of a national police force to address concerns from families. Chief commissioner Marion Buller says the inquiry has no police branch. The Canadian Press
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