To get an idea of why the federal commission on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has acquired such a reputation for uselessness, try getting in touch with it.
There are two phone numbers on its website: one for anyone wishing to contact the commission, and one for anyone who feels triggered and traumatized "as a result of reading the content on this website."
I called the former.
Voicemail. Left a message.
I called again later.
There is an email address, too. I emailed. No response. And again. Crickets.
After I obtained the email address for Sue Montgomery, the commission's senior communications adviser, and asked for a chat, the reply came back:
"I'm sorry Neil, but I'm not allowed to talk to the media."
Montgomery is actually resigning, effective June 2.
And no wonder.
A bureaucratic fortress
The commission, created with the best of intentions by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after years of indifference from Stephen Harper, has morphed, since its creation eight months ago, into an impenetrable bureaucratic fortress of the type government is so good at creating.
It's learned how to spend money – more than $5 million so far – and cranks out sensitive-sounding, culturally appropriate news releases, and spends a lot of time considering weighty legal issues about itself, but doesn't seem terribly interested in, or very good, at actually speaking to the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women, which is, after all, its main job.
"It's a mess … it's a boondoggle," says an Indigenous colleague who covers, or at least tries to cover, the commission. "They're not very good at saying or doing much."
Interviews with several people inside and outside the commission, some of whom requested anonymity because of the commission's obsession with secrecy, tell a story of sclerotic, officious incompetence, however well intentioned.
Indigenous families who want to tell their stories must "either call a 1-800 number and speak into the void, or send an email and hope someone gets back to them," says one inside source with a thorough understanding of the commission's processes.
As though people living in poverty and violence without potable water or internet in some remote reserve or town can register by email.
"There are several people who called last January who still haven't had anyone get back to them."
One commission staffer called the crisis hotline — the one people are supposed to call if they are triggered or traumatized — and spoke to a few counsellors. Apparently a lot of families had called, but not to discuss personal trauma. They wanted to talk about the trauma of trying to talk to the commission.
The commission's legal counsel, Susan Vella, reportedly takes the view that what happens once someone leaves a message is no one's business but the commission's. And that includes the person who left the message.
As a result, relatively few people have made the cut. At hearings in Whitehorse scheduled for later this month, about 18 people have been lined up to speak.
"Families who want to speak have to go through vetting to determine whether their story is appropriate for the commission to hear," says Francyne Joe, director of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC). "It's very frustrating. They are very secretive. I wouldn't be surprised if Indigenous...families show up uninvited in Whitehorse. They want to tell their stories."
(The Native Women's Association, which, as its name suggests, represents, well, native women, has not actually been given official standing to appear before the commission, even though it applied months ago. "It's still under consideration," says a commission insider. The NWAC, meanwhile, has given the commission multiple failing grades on an interim "report card" posted on its website.)
No MMIWG database
The commission's most basic problem is that it has still not built a proper database of Indigenous families who have lost loved ones, despite having the power to subpoena records from, say, the RCMP, which has investigated (or neglected) thousands of cases.
CBC News, after years of research, has compiled an online database of faces and names. So has the NWAC. The commission, meanwhile, has only a list of Indigenous people who have managed to navigate their way through the commission's faceless bureaucracy and "self-identified" as relatives of the dead or missing.
About 294 names, out of a total number of affected families possibly numbering several thousand.
Why hasn't the commission gone after government records of bereaved families?
"They told us they don't want to cold-call and re-traumatize the families of the missing and murdered women," says an official of the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. "Seriously."
The five commissioners themselves also remain largely a mystery to the audience they are supposed to be serving. Four of them are themselves Indigenous, including Marion Buller, a former provincial court judge in British Columbia.
But, according to an official in the federal department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, legal counsel Vella has taken the view that they must restrict any public speaking, for incomprehensible legal reasons.
"We want them to be out there talking all the time, wearing their hearts on their sleeves, speaking to reporters, doing interviews, telling their personal stories, reaching out to people" says the official. "This is hard to understand."
Part of the commission's problem might be the sheer breadth of its mandate, laid out on the official web page of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
The commission, it says, must "examine and report on the systemic causes behind the violence that Indigenous women and girls experience, and their greater vulnerability to violence, by looking for patterns and underlying factors … The commissioners have been mandated to examine the underlying historical, social, economic, institutional and cultural factors that contribute to the violence.
Whew. That's some mandate.
- Missing and murdered inquiry needs extension and new approach, families and activists say
The commission's website goes into even more detail, but several items down in its "FAQ" section is a declaration of what the commission cannot do: "investigate or re-investigate cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2SLBTQ, or of women, girls and 2SLBTQ who have experienced violence. The National Inquiry cannot provide monetary compensation or restitution to anyone."
In other words, families that are seeking justice cannot look forward to any new information about their missing or murdered loved ones. Or criminal compensation.
"They'll just get touchy-feely ceremonies and sacred fires," says a disgusted commission staffer.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett is well aware of the commission's dysfunction.
"The minister is watching closely. She knows families are concerned, and she is concerned," says her spokesperson, James Fitz-Morris. "But the way the terms of reference are written, the minister is prevented from stepping in and saying 'this is how you should manage yourself.' That is not how it works. It is independent."
At the same time, Bennett knows that if the commission flops, which it seems to be in the process of doing, it is Bennett and the prime minister who will eventually wear the failure. The only real tool Bennett has is to start firing commissioners, and that option is nuclear.
The Native Women's Association is already accusing the Treasury Board of treating the commission in a "colonial" fashion, approving and rejecting spending on a line-by-line basis.
Spending the budget
Indeed, as of March 23, the commission had spent about ten per cent, or about $5 million, of its $53-million budget. Of that, 29 per cent was spent on salaries, and 71 per cent, about $3.6 million, was sucked up by travel ($500,000) and, more expensively, administration, a lot of it provided by the Privy Council Office, in the form of "corporate overhead, legal services, interpretation and translation."
Whatever that means.
Still, the commission is largely the master of its own house.
It could be subpoenaing police records, and compelling police executives to testify about how the Mounties and other forces deal, or don't deal, with reports of missing or murdered Indigenous women, or explaining accounts of gross abuse and neglect of victims.
It could be talking constantly to the Indigenous public, reassuring and reaching out to them. It could be holding public hearings across the country and holding governments accountable.
Instead, it's apparently decided not to undertake any hearings this summer, knowing its interim report is due in the fall, a deadline it will almost certainly miss.
So, again, let me suggest a more direct approach.
Prime Minister Trudeau could, if he wished, call in RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson and his senior management team, and tell them something like this:
"Don't bother sitting down, officers, this will just take a few minutes.
"Here's $10 million. And it's just a down payment. I want you to form a cold case unit. Put some of your best investigators on it.
You have some good Indigenous officers. Use them. Get in touch with Indigenous police departments across the country.
"I want you to re-investigate every case of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls on your files. I want results. I want you to be able to tell families: 'This is what happened to your daughter or mother. This is who did it. He's either in prison or he's going to prison.'
"And I want it done now. If it isn't, the RCMP will have a different management team in a few months. Get to work."
That might not be culturally sensitive, or even very sensitive at all, and it might take some guts, but it would probably work.
And finally, some of those families might get the justice they want.