After high-profile resignations, families try to keep hope in MMIWG Inquiry

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When the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) was announced by the Trudeau government last August and launched a month later, there was a genuine sense of hope. Some families had been waiting decades for answers to the epidemic of violence and murder – and mystery. But a year into the inquiry’s mandate and that hope has been shaken.

In May, the Native Woman’s Association of Canada gave failing grades in 10 of the 15 categories it examined in its “Report Card assessing the success of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls.”

Then reports surfaced of families calling the inquiry’s 1-800 number only to be left waiting indefinitely for a response. “There are several people who called last January who still haven’t had anyone get back to them,” an anonymous source told the CBC’s Neil Macdonald.

From May 30 to June 2, the first public hearing was held in Whitehorse, Yukon. Lorelei Williams, an Indigenous activist and family member of two victims, was apprehensive and a bit confused over its approach. “I had no or little hope in the inquiry, I was feeling frustrated just before I went up to Whitehorse,” she said.

That was before she realized the first hearing was to take place in a tent. An earthquake cracked the roof of the original venue 10 days before the hearings were slated to start.  After the quake the community came together to create a makeshift shelter – a fact only people in attendance were aware of.

“If I was home in Vancouver and heard they were holding the hearings in a tent, I would be upset. But being up there I knew it was either that or cancel the hearings,” Williams told The Nation. “Other families weren’t told this. It’s that lack of communication and transparency that’s upsetting families. These things seem small but they’re actually huge.”

While in Whitehorse, Williams helped a friend who had survived an attempt on her life to testify in front of two commissioners. She was also able to connect with some inquiry staff members. She was even approached by then executive director Michele Moreau.

“After Whitehorse I slowly regained my hope in the inquiry. I saw everything with my own eyes and all of my questions and concerns answered,” said Williams. “Michele wanted to get a letter from me stating my concerns too.”

But upon her return to Vancouver, Williams’ renewed confidence was rocked again by the announcement that Moreau would be stepping down as executive director effective July 21, citing personal reasons.

“She reached out to me and now she’s resigning?” asked Williams. “If I was to apply for a job with the national inquiry, I’d know that it would be for the long run, I’d have to make that commitment. There’s obviously something wrong, and it’s not that she’s moving on to a better job.”

In June, three other prominent staffers resigned: Chantale Courcy, director of operations; Sue Montgomery, director of communications; and Tanya Kappo (a founding organizer of IdleNoMore), manager of community relations.

Then on July 11 the inquiry lost its first commissioner. Marilyn Poitras, a Métis law professor at the University of Saskatchewan, resigned in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Trudeau and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett. She’s also the first to speak publicly about her decision to leave the inquiry.

“If it’s a commission set up for hearings, to hear family stories, it’s going to be successful,” Poitras told the CBC. “But it’s not going to get at the roots of systemic violence. I don’t know how it’s going to do that.”

Since the departures, some Indigenous leaders have called for the resignation of the chief commissioner of the inquiry, Marion Buller. A Manitoba group representing family members called for all the commissioners to be removed and for the inquiry to start anew.

People like Williams feel caught in the middle.

“I understand why they’re calling for a reset, I do,” she said. “But I feel like this is probably all we’re going to get. This is what we have to work with so we have to figure out how to make this inquiry successful.”

According to Williams and Poitras, following Indigenous protocol is paramount. In her resignation letter, Poitras said the decision to put a colonial model first was a key factor in her choosing to leave.

“They need to include more ceremony and more Elders. At the hearings, there was a room full of medicines, but there wasn’t anyone in the room there to smudge you,” said Williams. “After these families are done testifying they’re just left there. They have support workers, but ceremony needs to be a huge part of it.”

Families of victims are both concerned and confused about what’s going to happen. “The community is talking and I don’t know who to trust, what to believe, I just don’t know. I wish they would just come out and say what’s going on,” pleaded Williams. “They have to get it together because the lives of our women and girls depend on it.”

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