A draft of the terms of reference for the upcoming inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women reveals that a through review of police conduct isn't part of the agenda. This is a shame given that every pre-inquiry consultation the government did with 18 different Indigenous communities included a plea to review police conduct. The draft shows a national probe into the matter will instead focus on shedding light on the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women, which further raises the question why police investigations aren't part of the mandate.

That the issue of police conduct or misconduct is isolated from the overall inquiry implies the assumption that systemic violence against Indigenous women in Canada happens regardless of how policing is done in relation to this violence. Such a framework takes for granted that the related, systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women, and the underlying forces that produced more than 1,200 missing and murdered women of Aboriginal descent in the past decades, are in effect self-sustaining and survive without being affected in any way by police practices. 

Not only do such assumptions fly in the face of common sense, they also go against the community-based knowledge that has accumulated over the years among Indigenous Canadians. Those who asked specifically for a review of police conduct to be included in the upcoming national inquiry understand that behaviours or patterns that contributed to the disappearance and murder of thousands of Indigenous women didn't occur in a social vacuum.

No neutral 'thin blue line'

No chronic form of violent crime occurs over a period of several decades without some sort of relationship with how the police given the job of solving these crimes have conducted themselves. Whatever successes the police have had must be put into context by being juxtaposed with their failures, and vice versa. That the national inquiry is apparently uninterested in looking at these relationships is a mistake that'll prevent the emergence of a clear picture of what's actually happening. In contrast to popular imagery and conventional parlance, the police are not some neutral "thin blue line" who exist in social isolation from the good and evil of a community. Their actions have wide societal and communal consequences — as do their inactions.

'The possibility that police conduct or misconduct may have something to do with the chronic and extended nature of missing and murdered Indigenous women is something Aboriginal communities have long suggested'

The possibility that police conduct or misconduct may have something to do with the chronic and extended nature of missing and murdered Indigenous women is something Aboriginal communities have long suggested. Carolyn Bennett, the minister of Indigenous affairs and northern development charged with launching the national inquiry, has reported this to be the case. She has noted that Indigenous communities are concerned about policing inadequacies in their communities and are not satisfied with how the justice system has related to and treated their families. She and the Liberal government should incorporate these concerns into the inquiry's mandate. This doesn't seem to be happening.

Moreover, many of the deceased's families have simply not accepted the police conclusion for many cases where the subject was said to have committed suicide. This has become a common phenomenon. The same goes for families who have simply given up on the police and conducted their own searches for their loved ones who've gone missing. That such situations have arisen with regularity should cause enough alarm to warrant a systemic review of how police have related to these communities, and how these relationships have affected subsequent investigations. Not looking at police conduct implies that the inquiry assumes that no connection exists between police conduct, the application of justice and community relationships.

Reopening cold cases not expected

Furthermore, the inquiry's mandate isn't expected to include the option of recommending that police reopen cold cases. In other words, any review of specific cases and investigations will not have a real impact on how those cases are being looked at now. The draft specifically instructs commissioners of the inquiry not to interfere in investigations. Rather, it seems the inquiry will focus primarily in holding community meetings with whomever wants to be included in the process, and make sure that the probe is "culturally sensitive" and "informal."

The draft reveals a state of affairs that renders the commissioners' mandate rather toothless. The Liberals should be given credit for launching this national inquiry but seem rather afraid of upsetting law enforcement or segments of society who don't have much sympathy for murdered and missing Indigenous women, an issue that seems to have receded into the Canadian background.

But no probe or inquiry into such a prolonged and chronic phenomenon concerning more than 1,000 missing and murdered women, all of Indigenous descent, can possibly occur in complete isolation from how law enforcement decided to treat these cases. The inability to look at this relationship won't just impede efforts to stop violence against Indigenous women, but will help prevent the emergence of a truly clear picture of what actually happened to them.


Steven Zhou is a Toronto writer who has experience in human rights advocacy. He has worked for Human Rights Watch, OXFAM Canada and other NGOs.