Opinion Social Policy

Time to Listen: Families Design Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Canada has had its fair share of commissions and inquiries with lasting effects on Indigenous peoples in our country. Some of these commissions of inquiry had positive effects, like the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, which recommended that the construction of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline be delayed for 10 years and that no pipeline be built through northern Yukon, in recognition of the devastating effects a pipeline would have on the region’s ecology, communities, and culture.

Other commissions have had deplorable effects on Indigenous communities, like the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission out of British Columbia, wherein the B.C. government, following the Commission’s recommendations, took away land valued at $1.5 million dollars, and replaced it with double the land at a third the price. As a result of that Commission, the Taku River Tlingit were pushed out of downtown Atlin, B.C., and moved to a swampier piece of land. Our waterfront territory was taken away.

Then there are infinite commission reports that once incited hope, but now only sit on shelves, while the government consistently fails to implement a single recommendation.

Which category will the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women fall into? Will it have real effects on Indigenous women, or will it gather dust in the back of a Department of Education book room?

Despite criticisms, the first phase, in which Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett is having conversations with affected families across the country, looks promising. Starting this week in the North, the government is consulting with family members who have lost loved ones, and asking the families for direction on how the process ought to unfold.

This kind of grassroots guidance in Commissions of Inquiry is unprecedented. Whereas the Oppal Inquiry into missing women from the Downtown Eastside was held in a provincial court room in Vancouver, albeit close to where the women were disappearing, families testified in front of judges who were flanked by lawyers on either side. The hearings I attended felt like a trial.

One can contrast the Oppal process to the Berger (or Mackenzie Valley Pipeline) Inquiry process, which was largely hailed a success. Thomas Berger visited the North for over two years, listening to industry, non-Indigenous communities, and Indigenous peoples in their own communities. The hearings were broadcast in six different Indigenous languages every night on the radio. Indigenous organizations received federal funding to retain and produce expert witnesses at the hearings. The process was inclusive to Indigenous people.

Families that have a missing or murdered daughter, sister, or other loved one must have an immeasurable amount of grief, and talking about these stories will inevitably bring up painful memories. Discussion about trauma, however, is necessary in order fully comprehend the complex societal issues that inquiries attempt to address; furthermore, the act of speaking about one’s trauma can have a tremendous effect within a community.

The therapeutic and often normalizing effect of sharing traumatic stories is, in part, what made the Truth and Reconciliation Commission effective. My father went to Lower Post residential school when he was four years old. In my experience, residential school wasn’t widely talked about until the Commission started making its rounds. The journey towards reconciliation is long and complex, but it is facilitated by honest dialogue. Part of a Commission’s effectiveness is found in the process of giving people a safe space to tell their stories.

In this Commission of Inquiry’s pre-inquiry design stages, affected families are able to guide how they want this process to unfold. Whether the process happens in courthouses, healing centres, prayer circles, or camps, the families will tell us what needs to be spoken to. Families will not only be included in the discussion—they will lead it. The only thing the government and the rest of Canadians can do at this stage is listen.◉

Photo: Women rally in downtown Vancouver during the February 14 Women’s Memorial March in 2010. The annual march honours the lives of missing and murdered women from the city’s Downtown Eastside. Credit: Kim Elliott (CC)

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