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Native women lead official inquiry into missing and murdered sisters






Marion Buller speaks at the launch of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Ottawa, Ontario, on August 3 2016. Buller, who was the first Native woman to serve as a judge in Canada, will serve as chief of the commission for the inquiry. Photo from GovCan Indigenous / Twitter

An effort that has been years in the making got its start on Wednesday with the launch of an official inquiry into countless missing and murdered Native women in Canada.

Native women and Native leaders have long been pushing for a comprehensive investigation, citing high numbers of deaths and disappearances across the nation. Their work finally came to fruition with the establishment of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

The independent body will be led by five commissioners -- three of them Native women. Marion Buller (Cree), who is the first Native woman to serve as a judge in Canada, will serve as chief of the inquiry, and she will be joined by Marion Buller (Innu), Qajaq Robinson (Inuk), Marilyn Poitras and Brian Eyolfson.

During an hour-long ceremony in Ottawa, Ontario, Jody Wilson-Raybould, who is the first Native woman to serve as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, said the inquiry fulfills a campaign promise of new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. She believes the investigation will help explain why so many sisters, mothers, daughters and other loved ones have gone missing or have been murdered.

"By examining the root causes that have contributed to this national tragedy, including past and present systemic and institutional barriers, the commission of inquiry will play a pivotal role in helping all of us to define where best to continue to act to protect the human rights of all indigenous women and girls in Canada," said Wilson-Raybould, who is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation.


A rally on the steps of the Manitoba Legislature on October 4, 2015, called attention to the 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. Photo by Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Native women and Native leaders welcomed the launch even as some expressed concerns about the commission's mandate. As one example, the inquiry won't be able to examine the role of law enforcement in failing to investigate missing and murdered women and, in some instances, being responsible for violence itself.

"The omission of a specific mandate to investigate police conduct, taken together with the failure to establish a process to review the many problems with police investigations related to solved, unsolved, uninvestigated, and misnamed cases (like those prematurely deemed suicides or accidents) is also considered a gaping hole in the inquiry," Pamela Palmater, who is Mi'kmaq, wrote on Policy Options on Thursday.

Dawn Lavell-Harvard, the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, was grateful that Trudeau's administration finally listened to the calls for the inquiry. Her organization had long been documenting hundreds of cases of missing and murdered women, a number that turned out to understate the enormous nature of the problem.

But the association said the commission won't be able to fully address the trauma suffered by those whose loved ones are gone because counseling appears to be limited in nature. Families won't be able to pursue or reopen cases in the justice system either.

"We recognize that five people cannot represent the diversity of our country and NWAC will work with the national inquiry to ensure that all voices that need to be heard will be heard," Lavell-Harvard, who is a member of the Wikwemikong First Nation, said in a press release.


The REDress Project raises awareness of missing and murdered Native women in Canada. Photo from Facebook

Advocates also noted the absence of officials from the provinces and territories of Canada at the announcement on Wednesday. They want to ensure that all governments are committed to participating in the inquiry even if might expose problems in their justice, child welfare and other systems.

"We urge the government of Saskatchewan to be comprehensive in the order-in-council authorizing the inquiry to examine all provincial institutions including policing, the child welfare system, the coroner’s office, and adult and youth correctional facilities," Heather Bear, a member of the Ochapowace First Nation who serves as vice chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, said on Wednesday.

Trudeau's administration has committed $53.86 million, or nearly $41 million in U.S. currency, over two years for the inquiry. Another $16.17 million ($12.23 US) will be set aside over four years for "Family Liaison Units" that will provide victim services across Canada.

According to a May 2014 report from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, nearly 1,200 Native women went missing or were murdered between 1980 and 2012. That number was about twice as high as figures that were compiled by advocates like the Native Women's Association and others.

A December 2015 update from the RCMP cited 32 additional homicides and 11 more incidents of missing Native women and girls. Since then, the Native Women's Association has counted another 14 cases of women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered.

Advocates in the U.S. have been laying the groundwork on similar efforts, pointing to the high rates of violence and victimization suffered by American Indian and Alaska Native women. The deaths of three Native women and girls in the first half of 2015 has spurred calls for the designation of May 5, 2017, as the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls.

"The harsh reality of our lives as Native women is that we witness our sisters, mothers, daughters, and community members disappear and nothing is done," Cherrah Giles and Lucy Simpson of the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center wrote in a call to action on July 1.

The National Day of Awareness would fall on the birthday of Hanna Harris, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe who was murdered in 2013 at the age of 21.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Reports:
Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview (May 2014)
2015 Update to the National Operational Overview (December 2015)

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