Con­fu­sion with trou­bled na­tional in­quiry

At root is fun­da­men­tal con­fu­sion over in­quiry’s pur­pose, terms of ref­er­ence

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Thomas Walkom Thomas Walkom is a na­tional af­fairs writer for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices.

The trou­bled Na­tional In­quiry into Miss­ing and Mur­dered In­dige­nous Women and Girls has long been an idea at war with it­self.

On the one hand and like most royal com­mis­sions, it is try­ing to fo­cus on broad struc­tural ques­tions.

Why are In­dige­nous women and girls more at risk of vi­o­lence than their non-In­dige­nous coun­ter­parts? What can be done to im­prove the sit­u­a­tion? What role does sys­temic racism play?

On the other, it is sup­posed to pro­vide some form of com­fort to real, in­di­vid­ual In­dige­nous fam­i­lies who have lost fe­male rel­a­tives and want to know what hap­pened to them.

When Canada’s Lib­eral gov­ern­ment set up the in­quiry last year, it hoped the com­mis­sion­ers it ap­pointed would some­how be able to do both. The events of the past few weeks demon­strate how dif­fi­cult that task is.

The in­quiry is in chaos. Five se­nior of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing one com­mis­sioner, have quit. The re­main­ing four com­mis­sion­ers nar­rowly es­caped a mo­tion of cen­sure last week from the in­flu­en­tial As­sem­bly of First Na­tions, which wants the in­quiry’s terms of ref­er­ence rewrit­ten.

The in­quiry has barely be­gun to hear oral ev­i­dence. It will be hard-pressed to meet its Novem­ber 2018 dead­line for is­su­ing a fi­nal re­port. It will al­most cer­tainly ex­ceed its $53.8-mil­lion bud­get.

At root is the fun­da­men­tal con­fu­sion over the in­quiry’s pur­pose. Its terms of ref­er­ence spec­ify that it is to re­port on “sys­temic causes of all forms of vi­o­lence - in­clud­ing sex­ual vi­o­lence - against In­dige­nous women and girls in Canada, in­clud­ing un­der­ly­ing so­cial, eco­nomic, cultural, in­sti­tu­tional and his­tor­i­cal causes.”

But they also spec­ify that the in­quiry is to rec­om­mend “ways to hon­our and com­mem­o­rate” the miss­ing and mur­dered fe­males.

Many of the fam­i­lies of the miss­ing and mur­dered ar­gue un­der­stand­ably - that the best way to hon­our their rel­a­tives is to find out what hap­pened to them.

A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber say they are not sat­is­fied with po­lice ex­pla­na­tions.

But as the in­quiry notes on its web­site, un­der its terms of ref­er­ence it can­not re­open po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

It can re­fer what it con­sid­ers ques­tion­able po­lice prac­tices to the “ap­pro­pri­ate au­thor­i­ties,” but it can’t in­ves­ti­gate on its own.

As In­dige­nous Af­fairs Min­is­ter Carolyn Ben­nett ex­plained last year, this lim­i­ta­tion was part of a de­lib­er­ate ef­fort to pre­vent the in­quiry from de­te­ri­o­rat­ing into a stand­off be­tween rel­a­tives and po­lice with both sides “lawyer­ing up.”

The gov­ern­ment’s main aim, she said then, was to get to “the root cause of sys­temic vi­o­lence.”

The rel­a­tives can be for­given for think­ing that this is not enough. The root causes of sys­temic vi­o­lence against In­dige­nous women are al­ready well-doc­u­mented.

The 1996 Royal Com­mis­sion on Abo­rig­i­nal Peo­ples blamed a cy­cle of de­spair rooted in a history of bro­ken treaties and cultural de­mor­al­iza­tion. Bri­tish Columbia’s 2012 Re­port of the Miss­ing Women Com­mis­sion of In­quiry sin­gled out “the legacy of colo­nial­ism in Canada.”

Other re­ports, both gov­ern­ment and non-gov­ern­ment, have come up with sim­i­lar con­clu­sions. And the Lib­er­als ex­pect this one to do the same.

As Patty Ha­jdu, then sta­tus of women min­is­ter, put it last year, this in­quiry “must also ex­am­ine how racism and sex­ism are em­bed­ded in the very in­sti­tu­tions that are sup­posed to help and pro­tect women and girls.”

All of this may be very well. But what so many of the rel­a­tives re­ally want to know, it seems, is what hap­pened to their spe­cific moth­ers, daugh­ters and aunts - and why po­lice didn’t put more ef­fort into try­ing to an­swer these ques­tions.

The in­quiry does have the au­thor­ity to look, in general, at how po­lice treat cases of miss­ing and mur­dered In­dige­nous women. On Thurs­day it is­sued a state­ment re­con­firm­ing its in­ten­tion to do so.

Will that be enough to sat­isfy the rel­a­tives and keep this shaky, dual-pur­pose in­quiry on an even keel? I’m not sure it will.

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