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Indigenous perspectives on the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women

Valerie Lannon

December 27, 2015

On December 8, 2015, the Liberal government launched the planning phase of its inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. What can we expect to see? What would Indigenous people like to see in this inquiry? consulted a number of sources to find out.

Magen Cywink: action driven by needs of the families

We begin with an exclusive interview with Magen Cywink of the Whitefish River First Nation, whose sister was murdered in 1994 in London Ontario. She has volunteered with It starts with Us and No more Silence.

What will you be looking for in the inquiry process?

Firstly, don’t just do the inquiry to gain voter support. Action, should happen along with the inquiry but begin by looking at prior reports, like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s, and identify immediate action items.

I will look for:

·      Action right away… there have been 700 recommendations from previous reports and they are very doable. For example, the BC government is now (finally) putting in a shuttle bus on the Highway of Tears in northern BC. The government needs to look at these previous reports’ recommendations and see what we can do tomorrow and in the next few months. Just get it done!

·      Earmarking the use of most of the government’s $40 million budget for implementation, because if they ask for additional funds later, it could be a problem. If no action is taken after the inquiry, it will just be a bunch of paper on the shelf.

·      Be financially accountable e.g. where is the $40 million being spent, and on which phase? Is the money going on lawyers or on travel costs for families? There needs to be financial reporting along the way, to avoid government waste. Again, most funds should be spent on implementation of recommendations.

What problems do you foresee?

When the Ministers announced the inquiry last week, they also said they will meet with families that week.  But most families were not given any prior notice of this; so whoever could afford to be in Ottawa could go. They will go across Canada, but lots of women and families in northern Ontario and elsewhere can’t easily get to Ottawa. Who will pay their travel costs? What about remote communities?

(On a related note, other families are concerned that the Justice Minister has not confirmed whether families will be given legal standing at the MMIW inquiry hearings or be funded to participate.  The unwillingness to do so for BC’s 2010 Missing Women Commission of Inquiry - conducted in the aftermath of the Pickton murders- headed by Justice Oppal, severely undermined community confidence in its process.)

What are some of the actions or recommendations you would like to see?

·      I would like to see police services overhauled because of their racism, which even the RCMP has admitted. But how do you really investigate this given that police officers have both public and private identities?

·      Secondly, we need programs that can make a difference for girls and women and keep them safe. Have the programs created by the families, because we know what went wrong, e.g. a toll-free hotline to help people get through trauma.

·      Create programs for children, help them understand that touching is not acceptable, and make it child-friendly

·      Train family members who are healthy, who have dealt with trauma, and make them available for other families to talk to, e.g. about expectations and to give guidance

·      Justice system - total overhaul because there is no deterrent to not murder, e.g. appeals, poorly handled investigations, so the murderers get off

·      Everyone wants a quick fix but there is no easy fix to colonialism and trauma; it will take 30 years to fix (or more)

·      We need to stay vigilant, so we need a review process e.g. every five years to make sure the process stays on track and is working, or revise the process

·      There has to be a watchdog to ensure government does what they said they would; what happens if the government changes? What’s the insurance we have that this inquiry will be completed and implemented? Who can guarantee that?

·      Have a grievance claim liaison for families who have inquiries or complaints about the process.

Are you optimistic about this inquiry?

It is going to take time, and the numbers of missing and murdered women will keep climbing for awhile. But we’ve got to stay on top of it and what how we’re doing and how we’re doing it, to ensure we have healthy families and communities.

Cindy Blackstock – link to services for Indigenous children

Internationally known advocate for Indigenous children, Cindy Blackstock, wrote an article for The Globe and Mail on December 2, 2015. In noting that the inquiry must consider systemic disadvantage, she points out the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women who were in care of the child welfare system. As the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission stated, there are more First Nations children now in care than the number who attended residential schools:

“Too often Indigenous children removed from their families are placed in non-Indigenous foster homes and experience multiple placements.  When that happens, Indigenous children are not only separated from their families, but also from their culture and from their communities.  Taken together, these circumstances place First Nations girls and women at greater risk for disadvantage, including violence.”

Blackstock also looks at the systemic issue of the impact of government under-funding of First Nations and their programs, including education and health services: “Saving money on the backs of kids is fool’s gold.  As the World Health Organization notes, for every government dollar invested in children, taxpayers save $7 in downstream costs, such as policing, addictions and social assistance.  Thus it makes good economic and moral sense for the federal government to end inequalities in First Nations education, health and child welfare.”

Pam Palmater – “Life was not rosy under the Liberals either

Early spokesperson for Idle No More, Pam Palmater, the Mi’kmaw lawyer from Eel River Bar First Nation and chair of Ryerson University’s Indigenous Governance program wrote an article in Toronto’s NOW magazine on November 5, 2105, entitled “Will we see real nation-to-nation respect with Trudeau?

Like Cindy Blackstock, Palmater acknowledges the government’s commitment to the MMIW inquiry and asks “but what about the nearly 40,000 Indigenous children in foster care?  In Manitoba, for instance, one baby a day is taken from an Indigenous family… Our children are committing suicide at younger ages, and preventable diseases are spreading like wildfire.”

Palmater has no illusions in the Liberals, noting that it was Trudeau’s father who introduced the 1969 White Paper on assimilation.  The Liberals were also the ones who failed to consult First Nations and in 2002 tried to bring in the First Nations Governance Act. Liberals imposed “the devastating 2 per cent cap on education funding for First Nations, a major contributing factor to poor outcomes. ”

Tim Fontaine – what can we learn from past inquiries?

Tim Fontaine, an Indigenous reporter for the CBC did an interesting analysis of past inquiries. This may help us develop some expectations for the MMIW inquiry.  Here are some examples.


Manitoba's Aboriginal Justice Inquiry was launched in 1988 and concluded the system had “failed Manitoba's aboriginal people on a massive scale” before releasing its final report in 1991. That report included nearly 300 recommendations, including calls for more indigenous lawyers, aboriginal-run child and family services agencies and the creation of a separate indigenous justice system.

Over two decades later, there are indeed more indigenous lawyers, even judges and separate aboriginal-run CFS agencies — but 70 per cent of inmates in Manitoba prisons are indigenous, up from half in 1991.

Nova Scotia

In Nova Scotia, the Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall, Jr. has had lasting impact. Its report was released in 1990, leading to the exoneration of Donald Marshall Jr. Since then, Nova Scotia's justice system employs Mi'kmaq translators, court workers and lawyers. But a 2014 review of changes since the Marshall inquiry was conducted found some key recommendations still hadn't been implemented. Indigenous peoples “were still demanding the opportunity to have a justice system that was truly Mi'kmaq and wasn't tied to the Canadian justice system,” says L. Jane McMillan, Canada Research Chair at Nova Scotia's St. Francis Xavier University and one of the people who conducted the review.

"They spoke very, very clearly about problems with policing and racism that they experienced through the courts system."

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released in 1996 a five-volume, 4,000 page final report that offered 440 recommendations. Notable recommendations included a call for the creation of what would essentially be a third order of government: an aboriginal parliament; an independent tribunal to decide on land claims and more money to be spent to improve housing, health, education and employment. In 2006, a decade after the RCAP final report was released, the Assembly of First Nations said the government had failed to implement any but a small fraction of these recommendations.


It took decades of pressure from Indigenous organizations and survivor families before the federal government agreed to undertake this inquiry.  The movement found allies in faith groups, trade unions, women’s organizations, student groups and other civic organizations. It will take continued pressure—led by Indigenous communities—to ensure the inquiry and the implementation of its recommendations meet the needs of survivor families, Indigenous women and Indigenous communities.

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