The three women and one man charged with leading the national inquiry into the large number of missing and murdered women in Canada say they uncovered more than 100 root causes for the violence during the nearly two years they spent gathering evidence.
As the commissioners wrapped up their final day of hearings in Ottawa on Friday, they said time constraints and their limited mandate forced them to narrow the focus of the inquiry. But they also said their work has raised awareness about the issue, and will prompt Indigenous people to demand that steps be taken to prevent more deaths.
“We’re way further ahead than we were two years ago simply because, on the streets and in the kitchens all across Canada, Indigenous people are mobilizing as a result of the families and survivors coming forward,” Marion Buller, the chief commissioner, said as she and the other commissioners gathered during a lunch break.
“Governments – and it’s more than just one government – can either get with the program or find that any support they have [from Indigenous people] is eroding," Ms. Buller said. "And it’s not just Indigenous people, it’s our non-Indigenous allies as well who are coming out in support in numbers that we never expected, never foresaw.”
The inquiry, which has been running since August, 2016, was tasked with uncovering the systemic causes of the tragedy.
It got off to a rocky start and did not hear from its first witness until the spring of the following year. Some of the families of the victims said they were not adequately consulted about the process. And there were complaints about a lack of support for people who stepped forward to tell their stories.
Marilyn Poitras, a Métis professor of law at the University of Saskatchewan, resigned as a commissioner in July, 2017, saying she disagreed with the way the inquiry had been structured. That left Ms. Buller, Qajaq Robinson, Michele Audette and Brian Eyolfson to carry on with the work.
After the inquiry released its interim report in November, 2017, the commissioners asked for an extension of two years beyond the initial two years they had been granted. The government gave them six months. That means they must file their final report at the end of April.
Over the course of the information gathering “we were able to see that there were more than 100 systemic causes” for the disproportionate number of deaths of Indigenous women and girls, Ms. Audette said. Without the extension “we had to make the difficult decision to turn to the families and survivors and the grandmothers to say we will have to decide amongst ourselves which ones we will study in the short time that was given to us.”
In the end, the commissioners said, they concentrated on about 10 significant reasons for the violence. They include known elements such as Indigenous poverty, lack of employment and lack of education. But the final report will “drill down” on those things, Ms. Buller said. Just saying that poverty is a cause “is not good enough,” she said.
The inquiry heard from nearly 1,500 family members of victims and survivors. There were another 604 people who shared their experiences through artistic expression. Fifteen community hearings were held across Canada and 101 experts were consulted.
The commissioners say they are frustrated that the government has not acted on their recommendation – included in the interim report – to create an independent police task force that would look into cases that deserve to be re-examined.
But they also say they are heartened to know that some police forces have reopened cold files on the basis of testimony at their hearings. And, in a few cases, people have stepped forward with evidence about crimes committed long ago.
All four say the inquiry has been an intensely emotional experience.
“There are a lot of people I will never forget, a lot of stories I will never forget,” Ms. Buller said. “Even having been a judge for a very long time, and having heard a lot of stories of misery and racism and poverty and marginalization, I am still surprised by some of the things that I have heard. And if I can be surprised, all Canadians should be surprised.”