The commissioners charged with overseeing the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIW) urged families and survivors of violence to be patient Tuesday, while acknowledging frustration because of the inquiry's slow start.

"We're very much aware of the impatience and the frustration felt by families and organizations," the inquiry's chief commissioner, Marion Buller, said Tuesday at the inquiry's first news conference since its launch more than six months ago.

"We share those same feelings, because there's nothing that we'd like to do more than to get the hearings underway. But we also know we have to do the hearings and our work in a thoughtful and purposeful way that, of course, is culturally appropriate and well-informed."

'You need to be patient a little longer.' - Michèle Audette

The inquiry has been plagued by delays and personnel problems, and recently, its director of communications, Michael Hutchinson, was let go, after only a few months of service. Families of victims have said they have been left in the dark by the commission, which has not yet given a definitive start date for gathering testimony.

Buller said Tuesday the inquiry would begin sometime this spring, promising "meaningful conversations about the root causes" of systemic violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls.

Buller says MMIW process will not be a traditional courtroom setting0:50

The federal government officially launched the $53.8-million independent inquiry last August. Commissioners are expected to submit an interim report in fall 2017 and a final report by the end of 2018.

Michèle Audette, the commissioner from Quebec and a former Liberal candidate in the last election, said the inquiry has been busy since its launch last summer, securing office space and hiring staff. The commissioners have also been reaching out to families and elders informally.

"The nature of the subject, and the nature of inquiry is very sensitive," Audette said in French. "That adds to the work that we have to do, and we are well aware of that. You need to be patient a little longer."

MMIW Inquiry 20160803

MMIW commissioner Michèle Audette urged families at the inquiry's first press conference to be patient. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Darlene Okemaysim-Sicotte, co-chair of Iskwewuk E-wichiwitochik (Women Walking Together), a support group for Saskatchewan families of MMIWG, said she was encouraged by the press conference Tuesday and feels the commission is on the "right track," but patience is running thin.

"Sometimes it's discouraging when you don't hear anything," she said in an interview. "We're all trying to be patient, but at the same time, it's frustrating."

Francyne Joe, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said last month that families of the MMIWG were "discouraged by the lack of communication from the inquiry following its official date of establishment — many concerns and questions requiring response remain unanswered."

Families have also been critical of the commission's terms of reference, which stipulate the inquiry will focus primarily on violence prevention and not police conduct and practices. 

The commissioners won't reopen individual cases or rule on the guilt or innocence of any particular person or organization. However, under the terms of reference, if the inquiry does discover pertinent information about a case, it can forward those findings to the authorities.

The inquiry will be focused on women and girls, the commissioners said Tuesday, despite some erroneous media reports that its mandate would be expanded to study the disappearance, or death, of men and boys.

Susan Vella, the commission's lead lawyer, said, however, that the inquiry will undoubtedly hear from men as part of the proceedings.

"It is obvious that when women and girls face violence, the entire family — including fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, male children and partners — are also impacted, and as such have relevant information to share with national inquiry," she said.

Not a trial

Buller said that the inquiry isn't meant to replicate criminal proceedings.

"Do not expect to see a traditional Western courtroom," she said. "Do not expect to hear or see a trial. Rather, expect to see and hear Indigenous people telling their own stories, in their own ways on their own terms."

There will not be cross-examinations, and the hearing space will not structured like a courtroom with commissioners at the front and witnesses in a box, Vella added.

Instead, the space will likely be set up in a circular formation.

There will also be spiritual and cultural ceremonies during the proceedings, and families will be allowed to give testimony together.

"Right now, it's a very flexible concept obviously, and it has to be," she said.

Audette said the inquiry will be "trauma informed," meaning participation for families and victims of violence is entirely optional, and testimony can be provided privately "in camera," or under the auspices of a publication ban.

Health support teams will also be available to witnesses. "The first person a trauma survivor sees will not be the lawyer, and that's quite different from a court process," Vella told reporters Tuesday.

Vella said this inquiry is unique in Canadian history in that its fact-finding mission is backed by the legal powers to compel police forces, government agencies and other institutions to produce reports and evidence, while noting the inquiry cannot interfere in active investigations.

With a file from the CBC's Timothy Fontaine