The former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission says the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls needs to start taking testimony from victims' families.
"Call your first hearing," Senator Murray Sinclair said when asked Monday evening how he would advise the inquiry to proceed amid questions about its seemingly slow progress.
"The hard part is getting started and that's what we found at the TRC," he said. "Once we got started in the community hearings, then it became a ride that just took care of itself. Then we were getting constant demands from people to come to their communities and talk to them.
"You're not going to lack for people to talk to, but you have to be willing to get started."
Sinclair made the comment during a public forum at the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto about how much progress had been made on the TRC's 94 calls to action issued in 2015. More than 200 people attended Monday's event, which was organized by The Mosaic Institute and sponsored by CBC.
Those recommendations came after the commission spent six years documenting the experiences of survivors of Canada's residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996 and where tens of thousands Indigenous children suffered physical and sexual abuse — and an estimated 6,000 died from starvation and disease.
The establishment of a public inquiry "into the causes of, and remedies for, the disproportionate victimization of Aboriginal women and girls" was a key call to action in the report.
Small number of cases criticized
But since its official launch last September, the national inquiry has been criticized for taking too long to get up and running, and it isn't expected to start hearing testimony from families until May.
On Monday, inquiry spokesperson Sue Montgomery confirmed that 90 cases had been registered in its missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls database.
"We're really distressed by this news, especially this far into the inquiry process," said Dawn Harvard, former president of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), who was also speaking at Monday evening's event.
Harvard said that 90 cases was a low number, given that there are believed to be more than 1,100 cases based on RCMP data.
One of the reasons for the low number of registered cases, Harvard said, was inadequate communication causing confusion, since many families don't realize that "the onus is on them" to contact inquiry staff, rather than the other way around.
"This is going to be a very incomplete inquiry if we have, you know, less than 10 per cent of the families," she said. "That's really distressing for a lot of the families who have gone into this fully believing that their voice is going to be heard and they're waiting for somebody to come to them."
In question period in the House of Commons on Monday, Indigeneous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said the government had provided the inquiry commission with a database containing hundreds of names.
"We are also actively working with the commission to ensure that it has the necessary tools to contact these people and organizations," Bennett said, according to Monday's Hansard — the official parliamentary transcript.
Harvard said that in order for the inquiry to be done properly, the federal government may need to extend the mandate past two years to allow more time for the families to share their experiences.
The inquiry's mandate states that its final report, including findings and recommendations, will be completed by Nov. 1, 2018.