Families packed the great hall of the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa on Wednesday — some holding signs with names and dates, others donning emblazoned T-shirts with photos of their loved ones —  to watch as the federal government announced the terms for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Marion Buller, British Columbia's first female First Nations judge, was revealed as chief commissioner of a five-member panel tasked by Ottawa to help bring a "national tragedy to an end." 

Buller said the "the survivors' losses, pain, strength and courage" will inspire the panel's work.

Before she was appointed to the provincial court bench, Buller worked as a civil and criminal lawyer. She also led an initiative to open the province's first First Nations court, taking a restorative justice approach to sentencing on criminal and family court matters.

The other commissioners are:

  • Michèle Audette, leading women's First Nations advocate, Innu francophone and former president of the Native Women's Association of Canada.
  • Qajaq Robinson, Ottawa-based lawyer specializing in Aboriginal issues and land and treaty claims, born in Nunavut.
  • Marilyn Poitras, constitutional and Aboriginal law expert at the University of Saskatchewan.
  • Brian Eyolfson, First Nations and human rights lawyer, former vice-chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

Buller acknowledged they have a "difficult" job ahead, and said they will be guided by those who have suffered from violence.

$53.8M set aside

"The spirits of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls will be close in our hearts and in our minds as we do our work," she said. "The families' and the survivors' losses, pain, strength and courage will inspire our work."

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Joan Friesen, whose family member Donna Navvaq Kusugak died in 2003, wipes her eyes during the announcement of the inquiry. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The inquiry will begin Sept. 1 and run until Dec. 31, 2018, at an estimated cost of $53.8 million, higher than the $40 million earmarked in the budget. 

At this point, the government takes an arm's length approach and it's up to the commission to decide when and where to meet and who to interview. The commission will have the authority to summon witnesses and compel documents.

It will examine the factors driving a systemic, high rate of violence against Indigenous women and girls, and the role of various institutions, including police forces, governments and coroners' offices.

It will also review various federal and provincial laws, but will not find criminal liability.

Certain matters can be referred to police.

The government also announced $16.17 million over four years to create family information liaison units in each province and territory, and to increase funding for culturally appropriate victims' services. Families will be able to take their questions regarding their individual cases and petition police and other institutions for answers.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett called the announcement of the inquiry's details a "historic" day, and praised the victims' family members for sharing their "heart-wrenching" stories to help set the parameters.

Carolyn Bennett

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett answers questions from reporters after officially announcing the inquiry. (CBC )

"They left no doubt in our minds about the urgent need to examine the underlying and deep, systemic challenges of this violence, including racism, sexism and the sustained impact of colonialism," she said.

'Pray, pray and pray'

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould choked back tears as she stressed the need to find the root causes of the disproportionate incidence of violence.

"We need to identify the causes of these disparities and take action now to end them," she said. "The government of Canada is committed to doing better and we will take action together to reach the goal of eliminating, as much as we can, violence against Indigenous women and girls."

For Bridget Tolley of Kitigan Zibi First Nation it's been an exhausting journey to get here.

Her mother, Gladys Tolley, was struck and killed on Oct. 5, 2001, by a Quebec provincial police cruiser while she was walking across a highway.

"I hope we get that justice. Pray, pray and pray. Pray for us, we want justice. It hurts too much. I don't want to do this any more. It hurts," she said, breaking down in tears.

"I'm just hoping and praying that this helps some families if not mine, that's all."

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Bridget Tolley, whose mother Gladys was killed in 2001, is embraced after the announcement of the inquiry. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Denise Maloney Pictou, whose mother Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, a Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq, was killed in South Dakota in 1976 by members of the American Indian Movement, said the inquiry is symbolically significant because it acknowledges that the lost lives had real value.

While some are skeptical that the process will yield answers and action, Maloney Pictou said most are grateful for the inquiry.

Lukewarm reception

"We're all very nervous. We're hopeful. We have faith," she said.

Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), says she's grateful the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women is in the spotlight, but worried about the commission's direction.

For starters, she's concerned that family members won't be able to reopen cases through the justice system.

"Families made it very clear that they wanted answers, that many cases they felt were closed prematurely, that they don't accept the conclusion. They wanted those reopened" she said.

Lavell-Harvard said she still needs time to review the new government funding announced Wednesday, like the family information liaison units, to see if they'll adequately serve families.  

The NWAC president said she's also worried about how provincial laws and regional police are dissected.

"Girls have described that they were trafficked, they were recruited into the sex trade from group homes, foster homes and hotels where they were under the care of the child welfare system," said Lavell-Harvard, who added she'll be monitoring the commission's progress. "We cannot ignore the fact that many family members and survivors of violence do not feel like they were treated respectfully or fairly by the justice system."

Counselling concerns

She also said while culturally based trauma counselling will be offered, it's limited to how long witnesses are in front of the commission.

"We know trauma does not have a timeframe. We know that families need to be prepared, that families need support, not just while they're appearing before the commissioners, but when they return home, when those wounds are reopened."

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AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks during a press conference following the announcement of the inquiry. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

 Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said his job will to ensure the eventual recommendations are implemented. 

"Indigenous women and girls, their lives matter," he said. "It's a national tragedy, but it's an international shame."

Cathy McLeod, the Conservative Party's critic for Indigenous affairs, said it is significant that all political parties, provinces and territories supported the inquiry, noting it reflects a common view that the situation is "unacceptable" in Canada.

But she said there have already been a number of reports and recommendations and it's time to start taking steps that will make a real difference, from building on successful prevention programs to ensuring police have the resources to investigate and solve crimes.

Past reports, recommendations

The inquiry's terms of reference note eight other inquiries or studies related to violence against indigenous women and gender-based violence.

"If we're spending $50-plus million on an inquiry, it's $50-plus million that could have been going towards shelters and programs and services. So it's got to provide real tangible path forward," said McLeod.

Charlie Angus, the NDP's critic for Indigenous and Northern Affairs, called it a "day of reckoning for Canada." He hopes the inquiry does not raise false expectations for justice, and urged the government to take immediate steps to protect vulnerable women and girls.

"I hope the pressure will be on to put the resources in now to keep other young women from being trafficked or victimized or murdered," Angus said.

A 2015 United Nations report found that young First Nations, Métis and Inuit women were five times more likely to die under violent circumstances than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

In 2014, the RCMP found nearly 1,200 documented cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls between 1980 and 2012, a number Mounties said exceeded previous estimates​.

The commission's interim report is due before Nov. 1, 2017, and a final report with their expectations exactly a year later.