OTTAWA — Manitoba’s political and Indigenous leaders are debating whether the federal government should extend the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
On March 6, the commissioners requested another two years as well as a $50-million top-up to their $53.8-million budget. The process is scheduled to end in November.
A Winnipeg grandmother who testified April 8 at the inquiry’s final public hearing in Vancouver, said Indigenous Peoples need to figure out what the inquiry could achieve if given more time.
"I can see the perspective from both sides," Angela Lavallee said. "The question is why? What is the reason for the extension? Sometimes the answers are in question."
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett is consulting with Indigenous groups and provincial governments about the proposal.
The terms of reference give the commissioners access to bodies governed by provincial law across the country, including city police. If Ottawa extends the inquiry, each province would have to decide whether to extend their own consent. That could mean a patchwork as of November, with commissioners able to access police records and provincial data in only some provinces.
Manitoba has not yet decided whether it would support an extension. Eileen Clarke, the minister of Indigenous and northern relations, said she’s still in touch with families, stakeholders and the federal government.
"Our government’s hope is that this national inquiry will result in realistic and meaningful changes that will begin to address the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls," Clarke wrote in a recent statement.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said recently it can’t support an extension, despite giving conditional support to one a month ago.
Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said that’s because Ottawa never responded to the inquiry’s November 2017 interim report, and the commissioners still haven’t laid out a detailed plan for the inquiry’s next phases, to either families or the assembly, which has formal standing in the inquiry.
Dumas is concerned about a lack of response to repeated calls for a Manitoba sub-commission. He noted that in 2016, Bennett called Manitoba "ground zero" for the growing awareness about missing and murdered cases.
He’s also concerned the commissioners issued an April 20 deadline for families to register to give statements, seven months before the inquiry’s current end date.
The Métis National Council says the inquiry shouldn’t be extended because the commissioners have forgotten the Métis.
Northern Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, A New Democrat, said Indigenous Peoples should decide whether the inquiry should be extended. She said hearings in Thompson last month were welcome, but late in the process, considering the northern city is an "epicentre" of the issue.
"This is a part of the country where major concerns have been expressed, in terms of the role of the police and marginalization of Indigenous women," Ashton said. "If the mandate continues to be one where the families are not engaged properly, or the role of the police is not being looked at, will time make a difference?"
Grand Chief Sheila North of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak had asked chief commissioner Marion Buller to resign over the inquiry’s staffing problems, which created confusion for families of victims. She has since asked that commissioners share the role.
"I can’t support an extension if they don’t change the makeup of the commissioners’ table," she said Friday. "It needs to be led by someone who leads with the heart and not the head."
Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran has led multiple inquiries into gender-based violence and harassment. She said she saw "a huge improvement" at the Vancouver hearings, compared with the Winnipeg hearings in October 2017, which reportedly left families feeling traumatized after testifying in front of a large audience without adequate mental-health and spiritual support.
In Vancouver, grandmother Lavallee testified alongside a friend to avoid feeling vulnerable. She spoke about her granddaughter, Zaylynn, in the hopes it might help the commissioners and let families know they’re not alone.
"There’s a sense that I have that she’s going to make a difference; it could be small, it could be big," Lavallee said of Zaylynn, who died three years ago, at nine months old. "She was loved. She’s more than a number. She’s more than what has happened to her."
Lavallee questions how Winnipeg police investigated the case, but she doesn’t want to give details because of the ongoing investigation into an assault on a family member. Last month, groups warned that families could jeopardize criminal probes by divulging too much information, especially if it contradicts what is heard in court.
Regardless of whether the inquiry is extended, she wants Winnipeggers to volunteer; to ask women who appear to be in distress if they need help; to teach their own children that Indigenous women and girls matter.
"Where can you go to support this? It’s a national crisis, and it’s everybody’s issue; it’s not only ours," Lavallee said.
McPhedran said she’s concerned the commissioners have been hamstrung by federal bureaucrats.
"Inquiries are like icebergs, and you really only see the tip of the iceberg when you attend a public hearing," she said, explaining even in independent probes, governments or bureaucrats can withhold resources or curtail decisions from the leadership, "Yet, they end up wearing it."
At a Senate hearing last September, McPhedran asked the commissioners if they felt stymied by the Privy Council Office, which oversees the inquiry. In a stilted, careful response, Buller said the paperwork and approvals were "an area of great concern for us… we are constrained."
McPhedran said Ottawa must make sure commissioners have adequate control, regardless of whether the inquiry is extended.
Updated on Monday, April 16, 2018 at 11:22 AM CDT: Corrects name.