One of the commissioners with the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls said Tuesday the inquiry's work should continue even if Ottawa makes a change in its leadership.
It was the first time Michèle Audette suggested any of the commissioners might be replaced if the federal government extends the inquiry's mandate past its December 2018 deadline.
"The extension is needed even if it's not me who is the next commissioner," Audette said while the inquiry was in session in Thunder Bay, Ont.
"The cause is way more important than a person."
She made the statement after the family of Sarah Skunk testified on Tuesday morning. Skunk vanished from the northwestern Ontario city in 1995.
Audette and the remaining commissioners — Brian Eyolfson, Qajaq Robinson and chief commissioner Marion Buller — have faced calls for their removal amid allegations the inquiry is in disarray.
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Commissioner Marilyn Poitras resigned in the summer. The inquiry has also lost over 20 staff members — including lawyers and an executive director — to resignations, firings and layoffs since January.
Three fired staff members recently came forward, alleging the inquiry is a toxic work environment where staff work long hours with little support.
During the Assembly of First Nations annual general assembly in July, Manitoba chiefs, supported by families, introduced but failed to push through a resolution calling for a reset and the removal of the commissioners.
The inquiry has continued despite the controversy.
Audette said she's felt the "anger" directed at the inquiry and acknowledged "we have to do more."
She said the anger was "legitimate… because the system failed."
Audette said she would continue to support the families of the missing and murdered women and girls, even if she is removed from her role.
"I will continue until someone else decides when my time is over," said Audette. "I will be walking behind you or with you or beside you."
The office of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said it could not comment on Audette's statement because the inquiry had not yet submitted its request for an extension.
"Once we have a formal request and a revised work plan, it's something that the minister has indicated she will discuss with the commission," said spokesman James Fitzmorris.
The inquiry is currently drafting its proposal.
'It's a political decision'
Audette later said she believed the commissioners would remain if the government agrees to an extension, but that she was prepared for any possibility.
"It's a political decision, it's not ours," she told reporters.
Audette said she didn't believe the inquiry could issue recommendations worthy of the desires of the families if its work ends as scheduled next December.
"The biggest concern is… the quality of the recommendations," said Audette. "If we don't see families and survivors, I strongly believe our recommendations will not represent what is really happening here in Canada."
Audette also said the inquiry's mandate is too narrow, preventing it from doing what many families want — reopening cold cases and missing persons cases.
"I wish we were able, when they gave us that mandate a year-and-a-half ago, to reopen all cases," said Audette. "We didn't have that mandate."