Lauren Heuser is a lawyer and journalism fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs
The new Liberal government has launched the first phase of its inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women. This phase will involve consultations with the victims' "families, other indigenous peoples, national aboriginal organizations and a range of front-line services workers and others," said Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Without question, the government should consult with these stakeholders. But it should not stop there. Other groups have informed perspectives on the matters at the heart of this inquiry, like government agencies and law enforcement experts. Further, it should appoint an independent advisor to set the inquiry's mandate after these consultations have concluded. Taking these steps would help the inquiry to remain focused and impartial.
The Liberals' decision to consult with stakeholders prior to commencing the inquiry is not a new idea. Once a government decides to call a public inquiry, one of its earliest tasks is to set the inquiry's "terms of reference," and it will generally consult widely before doing so.
For example, the government did not establish the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples until after former chief justice Brian Dickson had consulted with aboriginal leaders, government officials, academics and other experts. Obtaining input on the terms of reference is important, because they serve as the legally-binding roadmap for what the commission must do, may do, and cannot do.
In keeping with this tradition, the Liberals have properly promised to consider the perspectives of various aboriginal groups. These groups will likely have great insights into the institutional failures that imperil their women, and ideas on how the inquiry can help to restore confidence in Canadian institutions.
But inquiries serve many purposes. In addition to identifying institutional failures and promoting healing, they can also involve fact-finding investigations and the development of policy recommendations. The inquiry should not investigate facts or make recommendations that have already been addressed. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for example, made recommendations earlier this year for how to remedy the legacies of residential schools. To avoid duplication, the government should consult with groups – aboriginal or otherwise – that have insight into the issues that have already been covered.
It might consult with the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, which recently completed its investigation into the RCMP's failure to protect indigenous women in British Columbia. Or with the people that prepared the RCMP's 2014 report: Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview. Consulting such groups will help keep the inquiry focused on novel issues.
The government has said that its consultations will be led by three ministers: Ms. Wilson-Raybould; Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs; and Patty Hajdu, the Minister of Status of Women. The Liberals are demonstrating leadership by assigning their top brass to this file.
But politicians are necessarily driven by political interests. Public inquiries should not be. They should not drive at particular outcomes, or be captive to particular interests. To safeguard the inquiry's impartiality (both in appearance and fact), the government should task an independent adviser with setting the inquiry's terms of reference after the first-phase consultations have concluded.
This idea is not without precedent. In 2007, after Karlheinz Schreiber alleged that former prime minister Brian Mulroney had improperly accepted $300,000, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed David Johnston (not yet Governor General) as an independent adviser to recommend appropriate terms of reference for an inquiry.
An adviser in this case could consider all views put forward during the first-phase consultations, and then decide on the matters that the inquiry could beneficially address. The adviser could subsequently serve as the inquiry's commissioner, or on its panel of commissioners, but need not necessarily do so.
The launch of the inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing indigenous women marks the beginning of a long but hopefully fruitful undertaking. The government should take the necessary steps to make this long-awaited enterprise worthwhile and well-trusted.