First Nations chiefs expressed growing frustration with a delay in the federal government's launch of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, calling on both the provinces and Ottawa to stop dragging their feet, during a third and final day of an annual general assembly meeting in Niagara Falls, Ont.
The delay comes as two provinces, including Manitoba, continue to negotiate with the federal government over the terms of reference that would help determine the focus and scope of a national inquiry. It's unclear which other province is still negotiating.
"I know they're waiting on a couple of provinces to get on board and move forward. Today, I publicly call on those provinces to join our national inquiry," said Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Shane Gottfriedson on Thursday.
- 'No foul play' found in deaths of dozens of Indigenous women, but questions remain
- INTERACTIVE | Unresolved: Case closed or murder? Search our database
Gottfriedson said while the Trudeau government was quick to "spring into action" with the pre-inquiry phase as several ministers consulted with the families of the victims, the launch of the inquiry itself is now dragging on, Gottfriedson said.
"It's been frustrating, but it's also been challenging and … at times I feel that there is hope beyond the rainbow."
Manitoba seeks seat at the table
In an interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Manitoba Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said she's concerned there hasn't been enough consultation.
"I would like to see that there's consultation with respect to the terms of reference … we're in the process of doing that provincially here right now, talking with senior officials within the Indigenous community," Stefanson told host Rosemary Barton on Thursday.
Stefanson also said her province, which counts one of the largest Indigenous population in the country, wants the federal government to appoint a commissioner from Manitoba.
"A commissioner at the table would be very, very positive for Manitoba."
Stefanson said her province is not delaying the launch of a national inquiry, pointing to other provinces, including British Columbia, which have also raised concerns about "overlap and duplication."
National inquiry not a panacea
But the two provinces are not alone in their concerns over the terms of a national inquiry and what outcome it may produce.
"The discussion around the terms of reference troubles me," said Grand Chief Doug Kelly, the leader of the Sto:lo Tribal Council in British Columbia.
At a special assembly of chiefs in December, Kelly asked RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson some very pointed questions about racism inside the force.
Today, Kelly cautioned First Nations not to look at the national inquiry as a panacea.
"Let's not look for minister [Carolyn] Bennett, minister [Jody] Wilson-Raybould, commissioner Paulson to somehow produce a magic wand … that somehow, at the end of this inquiry, our world will change," he said on Thursday.
"The best that we can hope is that they will begin to hold their systems accountable, so that when we encounter racist RCMP officers they are dealt with as Paulson promised."
Deputy Grand Chief Denise Stonefish said the delay has prompted a number of Indigenous groups to write to federal officials urging them to get on with it.
"I guess because of the lack of announcement by the federal government, a number of the national organizations had submitted correspondence to the government indicating, wanting to know why the government is dragging their feet on this, and that this should be one of the top priorities."
Stonefish was scheduled Thursday morning to give chiefs and delegates gathered at the assembly an update on the much-anticipated launch of a national inquiry, but instead told the assembly the government had not given her a briefing.
"I'm here to say that never happened," she said.
"Minister Bennett even came to meet with the [AFN] women's council on Monday and, even at that particular time, she still did not … provide any clear, definitive process … for the inquiry."
Inquiry date unknown, but 'very close'
In an interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics earlier this week, Bennett said "there was some misunderstanding" with the provinces and territories over who would foot the bill for the national inquiry.
"I think we are reassuring provinces that there will be no costs to the provinces," Bennett said.
Bennett said in a speech to the chiefs this week the federal government was "very close" to announcing the launch of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
"We are determined to do this right for the survivors, families and loved ones, to honour the spirits and memories of those we have lost, and to protect future generations," a spokesperson for Bennett said in an email to CBC .