A national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls is a vital step for families involved but the Opposition will be watching closely and pushing for proper justice, said MP Cathy McLeod.
McLeod, Indigenous affairs critic, was in Gatineau, Que., for Wednesday’s announcement detailing the mandate, terms of reference and commissioners who will lead the inquiry.
Nikki Fraser of the T’kemlups First Nation, who lost her aunt and cousin to violence, was also on hand to witness the occasion.
“I hope this inquiry will help my family and other families move forward on their healing journeys so that future generations of women can live in a country where they feel safe and don't worry about becoming another statistic,” said Fraser, native youth representative with the B.C. Native Women’s Association.
The ultimate goal is to end the violence and prevent the tragedy from happening again, she added.
“To learn from this. To end and never repeat what has happened in the past,” Fraser said among Indigenous representatives responding to what Indigenous and Northern Affairs Critic Carolyn Bennett described as a historic moment.
The inquiry begins Sept. 1 and runs to Dec. 31, 2018, at a cost estimated at $53.8 million.
Though the task of probing the circumstances of an estimated 1,200 cases may seem daunting, McLeod said the commission has some advantages. A lot of fundamental work has already been done over the years and the commissioners are well respected, she noted. A gap in its representation — the absence of an Inuk member — has been criticized. However, she called it “a reasonable start.”
The former Conservative government long resisted pressure to hold a national inquiry and maintained that the necessary resources could be put to better use addressing underlying social issues. That changed immediately after the 2015 election when interim leader Rona Ambrose announced a shift.
“I think it’s important to recognize, No. 1, that we do have all parties in Ottawa, and territories and provinces across the country, supporting this inquiry,” McLeod said. “I think that’s significant.”
She said the Tories support the process as long as it remains focused on reducing the tragedies and achieving measurable improvements in the daily lives of Indigenous women and girls.
“As families of victims have expressed, justice is needed for these terrible crimes, and not just more resolutions and recommendations,” McLeod said. “I urge the government to provide police with the resources they need to bring perpetrators to justice. Sentencing should reflect the serious nature of the crime. I am concerned about the Liberals’ movement away from appropriate sentences for violent crimes.”
The commission is led by Marion Buller-Bennett, who was appointed B.C.’s first female First Nations judge in the 1990s.
The other commissioners are:
- Michèle Audette, leading women's First Nations advocate, Innu francophone and former president of the Native Women's Association of Canada.
- Qajaq Robinson, Ottawa-based lawyer specializing in Aboriginal issues and land and treaty claims, born in Nunavut.
- Marilyn Poitras, constitutional and aboriginal law expert at the University of Saskatchewan.
- Brian Eyolfson, First Nations and human rights lawyer, former vice-chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
As well, the government announced $16.17 million over four years to create family information liaison units across the country and to increase funding for culturally appropriate victims' services.
Potential for runaway costs is another concern for the Opposition, McLeod noted.
“The Liberal government has increased the budget from $40 million, stated in Budget 2016, to $53 million, which already represents a 33 percent increase,” said McLeod. “The Liberals will need to ensure that costs and timelines are kept under control as the inquiry moves forward.
“The commissioners made a commitment to developing concrete recommendations, and I will be monitoring to see if they materially improve on the more than 40 reports with recommendations that already exist,” she added in a news release.
“While British Columbia’s Oppal Inquiry looked at specific cases of missing and murdered women in the Downtown Eastside and along the Highway of Tears, the national inquiry will take a new approach, focusing on the underlying root causes and systemic issues that increase the vulnerability of Indigenous women and girls.
“I would like to congratulate the Honourable Judge Marion Buller-Bennett of Port Coquitlam, who has been selected as chair of the national inquiry. Judge Buller-Bennett will bring leadership and experience to this important and historic process.
B.C. Attorney General Suzanne Anton distinguished the inquiry from previous investigations held by the province.
“While British Columbia’s Oppal Inquiry looked at specific cases of missing and murdered women in the Downtown Eastside and along the Highway of Tears, the national inquiry will take a new approach, focusing on the underlying root causes and systemic issues that increase the vulnerability of Indigenous women and girls," Anton said.
“Alongside our federal, provincial and territorial colleagues, the province is committed to supporting this process as a critical step towards collaborative, meaningful, and transformative action on this important issue,” she added.