Four Indigenous groups are calling on the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to have Manitoba representation on its executive and to create a regional subcommission.
"This is about standing with families who feel at a disadvantage all the time, who feel marginalized and disrespected in many levels of society, and this inquiry process is starting to become one of those processes that are disappointing our families," said Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.
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North Wilson was joined by Arlen Dumas — grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs — Southern Chiefs' Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels and Assembly of First Nations Manitoba regional Chief Kevin Hart, whose portfolio includes the inquiry.
The groups, with the support of the Province of Manitoba, sent a letter to the inquiry's commissioners calling for provincial representation and a subcommission to make sure that families and survivors come first.
North Wilson said the province has unique needs and issues that are different than other regions, which is why it's important to have a Manitoban in a leadership role.
"We have a lot of isolation issues. We have a lot of poverty in this province," she said. "That's what we want this Manitoba-led process to address."
The proposed subcommission, which would involve families and survivors, would lead all the activities relating to the inquiry in Manitoba, sharing its findings with the national inquiry.
"We see a process right now [where] the inquiry is not including our families' perspectives and our families' desires. We stand with families and survivors," North Wilson said.
'Our communications have been lacking'
The inquiry has been surrounded by controversy and confusion since it was launched in 2016.
While Carolyn Bennett, who at the time was Indigenous and Northern Affairs minister, called Winnipeg "Ground Zero" in the national awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women during the pre-inquiry tour in 2016, none of the five commissioners were from Manitoba.
One of those commissioners, Marilyn Poitras, quit in July, saying the process was unworkable. Five other commission staff members have resigned since February.
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At an annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Regina in July, chiefs from across the country passed a resolution calling on the organization's leadership to demand big changes at the inquiry, but didn't go so far as calling for the resignation of all the commissioners.
On Thursday, the inquiry's commissioners addressed the House of Commons committee on Indigenous affairs to provide a progress report.
They were grilled about working with police, staffing challenges and transparency. When asked about whether communication with families had improved, chief commissioner Marion Buller responded, "I'll be blunt. Our communications have been lacking.
"But we are moving forward in a very aggressive and strategic matter."
'It's very frustrating'
The Manitoba Indigenous leaders said they remain in full support of the inquiry but changes need to be made.
On Thursday, a spokesperson for the inquiry said it spent $5.2 million last year and expects to spend approximately $34 million by next April. That would leave just under $20 million of the original budget of $53 million for the remainder of the inquiry's mandate.
Hart questioned when and how that money is being spent, saying families are struggling to get financial support just to attend hearings.
All of the chiefs said they'd paid to ensure that families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and survivors of violence, could make their way to the hearings — either out of their organizations' budgets or their own pockets.
"The families are the ones that are feeling the effects first and foremost," Hart said.
"For us as leadership, it's very frustrating and thus why we have such a united front to make sure we protect our families and have their interests in place first and foremost."
North Wilson said if there aren't improvements, families will not want to continue working with the inquiry and there will be significant gaps in the final report's data. If the inquiry is to make a real difference, she said families need to be at the forefront.
"They should feel like they are in the forefront, and they are not right now," she said.
The inquiry held its first round of public hearings in Whitehorse in May. More hearings are scheduled for this fall in communities across the country, including Winnipeg on Oct. 16.
An interim report by the inquiry is expected in November. The final report is due at the end of 2018.