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Missing, murdered Indigenous women inquiry lags in repaying counselling costs

The inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women is apologizing to victims’ families for the time it is taking to reimburse the cost of counselling they required after testifying about the tragedies that befell their loved ones.

In a letter sent to the family members last week, Terrellyn Fearn, the inquiry’s director of community engagement and support services, blamed the federal government and, in particular, the Privy Council Office, for the delay, saying they failed to quickly approve the costs of the aftercare that has been promised to those who tell their stories.

“We know some family members and survivors have been waiting too long for aftercare plan approval and reimbursement for services,” Ms. Fearn wrote, adding that she and the commissioners apologize for any inconvenience.

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“While we operate at arm’s length from the federal government, we are required to follow the same guidelines as every other Canadian government department to access our funding,” she wrote. “Complicating matters, at the beginning of the year, Privy Council Office questioned whether the national inquiry had the authority to deliver aftercare support.”

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That dispute has been resolved, and family members who have submitted aftercare plans outlining costs incurred in obtaining treatment should see them approved within the next four weeks, Ms. Fearn wrote. However, she went on, the government has still not provided a timeline for approving newly submitted plans.

The Privy Council said on Wednesday that it shares responsibility for granting aftercare with the commission, and that processes are in place for the timely recommendation and approval of funding.

A spokesman for Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Crown Indigenous Relations, said Ms. Fearn’s letter was raised last week at a regular meeting of a working group of inquiry staff and government officials. “Commission staff indicated that this letter was sent in error and contains some inaccuracies,” he said.

Inquiry staff did not respond to requests for comment from The Globe and Mail.

The commission promised families aftercare when it established the parameters for collecting the information it required to determine the causes of the violence. In an interim report released last fall, the commissioners said the inquiry’s health team would “do the aftercare follow up with those who participate in hearings or advisory circles.”

But family members say that does not happen consistently.

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A report card on the inquiry’s progress this week from the Native Women’s Association of Canada noted “a distinct lack of health support and aftercare for witnesses and families.”

And some family members who testified last fall have only this month received written agreements from the government that indicate how much money they are eligible to receive for the treatment they have sought. In addition, the recipients are being asked to waive the right to sue the government or the inquiry commissioners for any harm suffered during the testimony or the aftercare process.

The apology from the inquiry comes as the commissioners wait to hear if the government will accept their request for a two-year extension and $50-million on top of their budget of $54-million. Without an extension, the final report will be due late this year.

Alaya McIvor testified before the inquiry early last fall about the decapitation death of her cousin, Roberta McIvor, and about her own experiences as a survivor of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Ms. McIvor said she got help from an Indigenous healer after the hearing, but has been reimbursed for only half the cost.

“They are trying to find ways to not pay me for the money I put out,” Ms. McIvor said in a telephone interview.

Maggie Cywink, whose sister Sonya was found dead in Southwestern Ontario in 1994 and who has been an advocate for the relatives of those who have been murdered or gone missing, said aftercare was promised to help the families “deal with the grief and deal with the trauma of testifying.”

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But families have gone weeks or months after testifying without any contact from inquiry staff to tell them how to obtain counselling or what will be reimbursed, Ms. Cywink said. “The onus was put back on the families,” she said. “The followup and aftercare was never really a priority.”

The PM told an Assembly of First Nations gathering on Wednesday that it will take time to see major changes on Indigenous rights. Justin Trudeau says he understands the cynicism around government promises. The Canadian Press
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