Five women and one man are driving Manitoba’s highways, plugging families into the national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Reached Monday on the road near Dauphin, Morene Gabriel said the tiny team, led by the Assembly of First Nations Manitoba regional Chief Kevin Hart, has been on the road for several days.
They’re doing the work the national inquiry wants to do but can’t.
Word of the road trips in Manitoba surfaced the same day as headlines showed privacy and process hurdles have held up the inquiry’s progress.
Despite databases around the country, including the RCMP database in 2014 that identified nearly 1,200 indigenous women and girls who have vanished or were murdered since 1980, the national inquiry confirmed Monday it has fewer than 100 of the victims’ families registered for hearings that officially start in May.
And those names are sometimes members of the same family, said Christa Big Canoe, a lawyer with the commission heading up the national inquiry.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett led a consultative pre-inquiry tour to set the framework for the hearings a year ago, hearing from families who’d lost loved ones and registering their names.
In the House of Commons Monday, Bennett found herself the focus of attention over whether the government was somehow blocking the progress of the inquiry just eight weeks out from the hearings, something Bennett denied.
"We’re not blocking anything. We will be doing everything in our power to get (the inquiry) the information," Bennett said during question period.
Big Canoe said she couldn’t say with 100 per cent certainty why the inquiry’s list of names was so small when other databases hold thousands of names.
"The problem with a lot of those (databases) is they don’t have contact names for the next of kin with the family," Big Canoe said.
Privacy and process concerns, possibly even legal hurdles, may have thrown up obstacles to Ottawa handing over its list from last year.
"In all fairness, (some) didn’t sign a release of that information... and there could be legitimate privacy concerns. It’s not uncommon to require third party releases," Big Canoe said.
Moreover, the inquiry was cautioned against soliciting families.
"What we heard back was don’t cold call these families... (so) a trauma approach means we’re not going to demand people tell their stories. We’re asking them to touch base with us," Big Canoe said.
"The commission really does want to hear as many stories as possible from across the country.
"Obviously, it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating, too, when all your best efforts are being put in by the national inquiry and other places."
In Winnipeg, the co-chairwoman of the Manitoba Coalition for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls expressed concern, barely three weeks after holding a press conference to draw attention to many of the same issues.
Hilda Anderson-Pyrz said she appeared before the pre-inquiry consultations that Bennett hosted last year and doesn’t understand why families, including hers, who signed up then have to sign up all over again.
"A lot of things are creating a lot of harm for the families. They don’t know what’s happening and they don’t know where to register unless they can go on the (inquiry’s) Facebook page or their website," Anderson Pyrz said.
"There’s no real big announcements coming out about the process or how to register, on television, radio or newspapers. This lack of communication is making families feel left out of the process."
Gabriel said the most surprising finding the team on the highway found out is many people aren’t aware there is a national inquiry.
"That’s profound. To think the government is placing $53 million into a national inquiry and yet a lot of people in the communities have not heard of it," Gabriel said.
"The only way that these families’ voices will be heard is if someone in the community (works) with the national inquiry to come to the community to do a hearing."
By Monday, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) team had held community outreach sessions in the First Nations of Pimicikamak Cree in Cross Lake, Norway House, Opaskwayak Cree Nation at The Pas and in Thompson, hearing from families of 120 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, some dating back to the 1960s.
Up until now, the number most widely cited for missing and murdered women in Manitoba was that it exceeded 120 victims.
The AFN team is holding outreach sessions in Dauphin, Brandon, Portage la Prairie and Sagkeeng First Nation this week and next before wrapping up March 30 and 31 at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg.
The national inquiry websites can be reached through mmiwg-ffada.ca or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.