By Kristy Kirukp The Canadian Press
GATINEAU, Que. — A long-standing call for an inquiry into the disproportionate number of missing and murdered indigenous women across the country was answered Wednesday, but family members and advocates said they felt vulnerable about the process and wondered if it will result in real action.
In a ceremony at the Canadian Museum of History which included indigenous traditions, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu handed over a symbolic birchbark basket to the five commissioners who will study the issue.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada, along with other organizations including the Assembly of First Nations, have been pushing for the inquiry to examine the magnitude of the problem.
To date, the only formal figures available are from the RCMP.
In May 2014, it documented 1,181 cases of murdered and missing women between 1980 and 2012.
A year later, it released updated figures, noting 32 more aboriginal women had been murdered and 11 more had disappeared since its initial report.
There’s also the basic issue of violence against women ‚Äî both inside indigenous communities and in urban centres.
The enormity of the situation was visible on Wilson-Raybould’s face Wednesday, as she fought back tears.
As a former B.C. regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, she has an intimate knowledge of the problem.
“For me this morning, it kind of all came flooding in,” Wilson-Raybould said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“I mean, this is really important. I thought about all of the women that were looking at us in the audience today and across the country that are invested in this inquiry, want to find the truth, want to bring justice to their loved ones.”
Bridget Tolley from the Kitigan Zibi reserve near Maniwaki, Que., said she has searched for answers for 15 years.
She alleges her mother was struck by a provincial police officer but said there was no investigation to examine what happened.
“It hurts,” Tolley said, with tears streaming down her face.
“I want justice so badly … I am just hoping and praying this helps some families, if not mine. That’s all.”
Charlie Angus, the NDP’s indigenous affairs critic, said Wednesday’s announcement was a long time coming and he supports the work of he commissioners.
But he said one of his greatest concerns is that the federal government raised expectations for families.
“Many of these families, they want to know who killed their daughter or sister and the minister … raised enormous expectations in the families of these victims when they started to speculate publicly about the numbers,” Angus said.
Five commissioners, to be led by Marion Buller, B.C.’s first female First Nations judge, will hear many stories like Tolley’s and will have to present recommendations for action.
The federal government has provided $53.8 million to the commission for its work over the next two years, $13.8 million more than originally budgeted.
The commission is empowered to compel witnesses to testify, as a court is.
Bennett stressed, however, the government has heard many families are not interested in courtroom drama. Instead, informal processes will likely be considered.
The provinces and territories had to support the inquiry terms of reference to allow the commissioners to examine issues that cross jurisdictional boundaries, including policing and child welfare.
But Bennett conceded indigenous leaders will also have to co-operate.
“In terms of First Nations and their communities, it will be up to First Nations … as always, to determine where the commission is invited to come,” Bennett said.
“Obviously we trust that commission will make arrangements to make sure anybody who needs to be heard will be heard.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he is confident chiefs will co-operate in the process, noting his organization has passed resolutions among its leaders to support the inquiry.
“No question,” Bellegarde told The Canadian Press. “There is support for that to happen.”
There were also concerns about the composition of the commission.
Pauktuutit, a national organization representing Inuit women in Canada, wants the federal government to appoint an Inuk woman as a sixth commissioner.
The organization said it was disappointed that Qajaq Robinson, a Nunavut-raised lawyer who speaks Inuktitut fluently but is not Inuk herself, had been named instead.
“We are Inuit. We have our distinct, rightful place to have a voice,” Meeka Otway, secretary-treasurer of Pauktuutit, said at a news conference in Ottawa.