Stake­hold­ers ques­tion ben­e­fit of ex­tend­ing Indige­nous in­quiry

Winnipeg Free Press - - NEWS - DY­LAN ROBERT­SON dy­lan.robert­son@freep­ress.mb.ca

OTTAWA — Man­i­toba’s po­lit­i­cal and Indige­nous lead­ers are de­bat­ing whether the fed­eral gov­ern­ment should ex­tend the Na­tional In­quiry into Miss­ing and Mur­dered Indige­nous Women and Girls.

On March 6, the com­mis­sion­ers re­quested an­other two years as well as a $50-mil­lion top-up to their $53.8-mil­lion bud­get. The process is sched­uled to end in Novem­ber.

A Win­nipeg grand­mother who tes­ti­fied April 8 at the in­quiry’s fi­nal pub­lic hear­ing in Van­cou­ver, said Indige­nous Peoples need to fig­ure out what the in­quiry could achieve if given more time.

“I can see the per­spec­tive from both sides,” An­gela Lavallee said. “The ques­tion is why? What is the rea­son for the ex­ten­sion? Some­times the an­swers are in ques­tion.”

Crown-Indige­nous Relations Min­is­ter Carolyn Ben­nett is con­sult­ing with Indige­nous groups and pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments about the pro­posal.

The terms of ref­er­ence give the com­mis­sion­ers ac­cess to bod­ies gov­erned by pro­vin­cial law across the coun­try, in­clud­ing city po­lice. If Ottawa ex­tends the in­quiry, each prov­ince would have to de­cide whether to ex­tend their own con­sent. That could mean a patch­work as of Novem­ber, with com­mis­sion­ers able to ac­cess po­lice records and pro­vin­cial data in only some provinces.

Man­i­toba has not yet de­cided whether it would sup­port an ex­ten­sion. Eileen Clarke, the min­is­ter of Indige­nous and north­ern relations, said she’s still in touch with fam­i­lies, stake­hold­ers and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

“Our gov­ern­ment’s hope is that this na­tional in­quiry will re­sult in re­al­is­tic and mean­ing­ful changes that will be­gin to ad­dress the sys­temic causes of vi­o­lence against Indige­nous women and girls,” Clarke wrote in a re­cent state­ment.

The As­sem­bly of Man­i­toba Chiefs said re­cently it can’t sup­port an ex­ten­sion, de­spite giv­ing con­di­tional sup­port to one a month ago.

Grand Chief Arlen Du­mas said that’s be­cause Ottawa never re­sponded to the in­quiry’s Novem­ber 2017 in­terim re­port, and the com­mis­sion­ers still haven’t laid out a de­tailed plan for the in­quiry’s next phases, to ei­ther fam­i­lies or the as­sem­bly, which has for­mal stand­ing in the in­quiry.

Du­mas is con­cerned about a lack of re­sponse to re­peated calls for a Man­i­toba sub-com­mis­sion. He noted that in 2016, Ben­nett called Man­i­toba “ground zero” for the grow­ing aware­ness about miss­ing and mur­dered cases.

He’s also con­cerned the com­mis­sion­ers is­sued an April 20 dead­line for fam­i­lies to reg­is­ter to give state­ments, seven months be­fore the in­quiry’s cur­rent end date.

The Métis Na­tional Coun­cil says the in­quiry shouldn’t be ex­tended be­cause the com­mis­sion­ers have for­got­ten the Métis.

North­ern Man­i­toba MP Niki Ash­ton, A New Demo­crat, said Indige­nous Peoples should de­cide whether the in­quiry should be ex­tended. She said hear­ings in Thomp­son last month were wel­come, but late in the process, con­sid­er­ing the north­ern city is an “epi­cen­tre” of the is­sue.

“This is a part of the coun­try where ma­jor con­cerns have been ex­pressed, in terms of the role of the po­lice and marginal­iza­tion of Indige­nous women,” Ash­ton said. “If the man­date con­tin­ues to be one where the fam­i­lies are not en­gaged prop­erly, or the role of the po­lice is not be­ing looked at, will time make a dif­fer­ence?”

Grand Chief Sheila North Wil­son of the Man­i­toba Kee­wati­nowi Oki­makanak had asked chief com­mis­sioner Mar­ion Buller to re­sign over the in­quiry’s staffing prob­lems, which cre­ated con­fu­sion for fam­i­lies of vic­tims. She has since asked that com­mis­sion­ers share the role.

“I can’t sup­port an ex­ten­sion if they don’t change the makeup of the com­mis­sion­ers’ ta­ble,” she said Fri­day. “It needs to be led by some­one who leads with the heart and not the head.”

Man­i­toba Sen. Mar­ilou McPhe­dran has led mul­ti­ple in­quiries into gen­der-based vi­o­lence and ha­rass­ment. She said she saw “a huge im­prove­ment” at the Van­cou­ver hear­ings, com­pared with the Win­nipeg hear­ings in Oc­to­ber 2017, which re­port­edly left fam­i­lies feel­ing trau­ma­tized af­ter tes­ti­fy­ing in front of a large au­di­ence with­out ad­e­quate men­tal-health and spir­i­tual sup­port.

In Van­cou­ver, grand­mother Lavallee tes­ti­fied along­side a friend to avoid feel­ing vul­ner­a­ble. She spoke about her grand­daugh­ter, Zay­lynn, in the hopes it might help the com­mis­sion­ers and let fam­i­lies know they’re not alone.

“There’s a sense that I have that she’s go­ing to make a dif­fer­ence; it could be small, it could be big,” Lavallee said of Zay­lynn, who died three years ago, at nine months old. “She was loved. She’s more than a num­ber. She’s more than what has hap­pened to her.”

Lavallee ques­tions how Win­nipeg po­lice in­ves­ti­gated the case, but she doesn’t want to give de­tails be­cause of the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion into an as­sault on a fam­ily mem­ber. Last month, groups warned that fam­i­lies could jeop­ar­dize crim­i­nal probes by di­vulging too much in­for­ma­tion, es­pe­cially if it con­tra­dicts what is heard in court.

Re­gard­less of whether the in­quiry is ex­tended, she wants Win­nipeg­gers to vol­un­teer; to ask women who ap­pear to be in dis­tress if they need help; to teach their own chil­dren that Indige­nous women and girls mat­ter.

“Where can you go to sup­port this? It’s a na­tional cri­sis, and it’s ev­ery­body’s is­sue; it’s not only ours,” Lavallee said.

McPhe­dran said she’s con­cerned the com­mis­sion­ers have been ham­strung by fed­eral bu­reau­crats.

“In­quiries are like ice­bergs, and you re­ally only see the tip of the ice­berg when you at­tend a pub­lic hear­ing,” she said, ex­plain­ing even in in­de­pen­dent probes, gov­ern­ments or bu­reau­crats can with­hold re­sources or cur­tail de­ci­sions from the lead­er­ship, “Yet, they end up wear­ing it.”

At a Se­nate hear­ing last Septem­ber, McPhe­dran asked the com­mis­sion­ers if they felt stymied by the Privy Coun­cil Of­fice, which over­sees the in­quiry. In a stilted, care­ful re­sponse, Buller said the pa­per­work and ap­provals were “an area of great con­cern for us… we are con­strained.”

McPhe­dran said Ottawa must make sure com­mis­sion­ers have ad­e­quate con­trol, re­gard­less of whether the in­quiry is ex­tended.

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