What is the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls for? Why does it exist, and what is it supposed to do? These are not rhetorical questions.
They're the questions the Trudeau government should have asked, and tried to honestly answer, before it created this inquiry. They go to the heart of the problems the inquiry is having – and the problem the government created, in establishing this inquiry without fully thinking through the hows and whys. The commission, nearly a year old and with little to show for it, has been marked by growing disagreement over what it's meant to do, and how to do it.
The latest criticism landed Tuesday, in the form of an open letter from roughly 150 Indigenous leaders, activists and family members of victims. They want a "hard reset" of the inquiry, so that it can be rebuilt as a forum that is truly "Indigenous-led and community-driven."
The signatories say the inquiry is disorganized, lacks transparency, and is neither communicating with nor listening to families. Somewhat less convincingly, they describe the inquiry as "adopting the very processes that result in systemic and colonial violence," and being "rooted in a colonial model that prioritizes both Eurocentric medical and legal frameworks."
They also say there is "no clarity about the processes that will be used for the rapidly approaching hearings," which finally begin later this month. And in any case, "the emphasis on 'hearings' is also rooted in a western, colonial approach."
The Harper government resisted a call for an inquiry into the fact that, over the last five decades, Canadian Indigenous women have been more likely than non-native women to go missing or be murdered. The Trudeau government, in contrast, embraced the idea of an inquiry focussed exclusively on Indigenous women and girls.
Why? Again, that's a real question. The government's terms of reference suggest that the inquiry exists somewhere between a needed forum for grieving and story telling for the benefit of Indigenous victims, and a dispassionate fact-finding mission inquiring into them. It is simultaneously memorial and coroner's inquest. The former offers a space for emotional healing; the latter prizes detachment and objective answers. They may not be opposites, but they aren't the same. It's not easy to be both.
Some Indigenous critics of the inquiry say that its terms of reference are too limited, and that it cannot look into police conduct or the role of the child welfare system. They may have a point.
At the same time, however, if it is to seek the reasons why native women are murdered at a higher rate that non-Indigenous women, it's hard to see how that can be honestly examined without considering the broad range of economic and social conditions afflicting many Indigenous communities. Everything from native school graduation rates to levels of university attendance and employment are lower than for other Canadians, while the level of incarceration is higher. A high female murder rate exists in that context, and at least partly arises out of it.
One also has to wonder whether an inquiry into violence can legitimately fail to consider that the other half of the community – Indigenous men – are murdered at a far higher rate than Indigenous women.
So, what should the Trudeau government do?
Option No. 1: Invent a time machine, travel a year into the past, and never call this inquiry in the first place. Officials in the recently renamed Langevin Block have surely fantasized about that option.
Option No. 2: Stay the course. Stick with the inquiry as it is. After all, not all Indigenous groups and leaders are calling for a reset.
Option No. 3: Hit the reset button. Give the inquiry broader terms of reference, and new commissioners. That's what many native groups, including Tuesday's letter writers, are calling for.
And then there's our suggestion. Option No. 4: Shut down the inquiry and start all over again – by handing it entirely to Indigenous Canadians.
The Trudeau government could turn to an umbrella group like the Assembly of First Nations. Ottawa would provide a set amount of funding, but beyond that, it would leave it entirely to Indigenous Canadians to decide on the inquiry's composition, mission, terms of reference, timelines, methods and objectives – everything. Turn the process over to the people most concerned with the outcome. They may surprise with their honesty and hard-headedness.
As with any other inquiry, Ottawa would be under no obligation to adopt its advice as government policy. But it would be obliged to at least listen.
A hands-off commission, with the Trudeau government having zero control over process and conclusions, might turn into a chaotic mess. But isn't the inquiry already a chaotic mess? That is not a rhetorical question.