Amid tight timelines and delays, commissioners with the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls inquiry are recommending the creation of a national police task force that could review cold cases and reopen investigations.
While the chief commissioner, Marion Buller, has vowed to study police conduct, and "investigate the investigators," the commissioners are now calling on the federal government and provinces work together to establish a new, separate body to which families can be referred if they feel they got short shrift from police in the first place.
"Consistently, across Canada, families and survivors have told us they want answers, they have questions, and they desperately want answers to what happened to their loved ones, why investigations were stopped, why leads weren't followed up? It's vital for their healing that they do find out," Buller told reporters Wednesday.
"We don't have a police force arm to work with us to help survivors and families get those answers."
Qajaq Robinson, another commissioner, said the inquiry should be staffed with investigators with Indigenous knowledge, and the language capacity to reopen cases "in a proper way."
"I believe there are a number of qualified Indigenous officers that could give these cases the attention they need," she said.
Robinson suggested families and survivors would have a say on who sits on the task force.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett was non-committal Wednesday when asked if her government would support such a measure.
"Obviously, we've just read the report, and we're looking at the recommendations. It's a very interesting proposal and I look forward to working with my colleagues, and talking with the commission, hopefully very soon," she told reporters ahead of question period.
The inquiry has long warned family members not to expect a full reinvestigation of individual files, or for the inquiry to assign blame for a failed investigation, prosecution, or search and rescue.
It can, however, look at files to assess the competency of a police response, the investigation process and the behaviour of Crown attorneys. While that might seem like a fine distinction, the inquiry is more concerned about identifying common pitfalls of Canadian policing rather than assign blame to individual officers for the outcome of a particular case.
The inquiry can also pass along any new information or evidence it uncovers as part of its probing. Buller said the inquiry has not given police anything just yet, but she expects to do so "shortly."
Some police forces are already in the midst of reviewing cases, including in Edmonton, where 190 unsolved homicides and 91 missing person cases dating back to 1938 are being re-examined to determine which ones involved Indigenous females.
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In the inquiry's interim report, released Wednesday, commissioners suggest a national task force could be best placed to work with families and survivors who are looking for answers that the inquiry can't provide within its mandate, and constrained timeline. The final report is to be completed by Nov. 1, 2018.
The two-year timeframe has long been a sticking point for the commissioners, with Buller suggesting the Liberal government will eventually be asked for an extension.
"Our short timelines ... will limit our ability to do in-depth analysis of data collected," the commissioners warned in the report. "Staff time and human resources limit the amount of original research we can undertake, while the short timelines limit the number of expert reports we can commission."
Buller said Wednesday the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had five years to carry out its work.
"We need enough time to the do the job properly, to hear from families and survivors who want to speak to us, to speak to institutions about their policies and procedures, and to hear from experts on human right and other topics."
She said they are "ready" for Ottawa to say no to an extension. But another commissioner, Michèle Audette, said "I have a feeling they'll say yes."
Bennett said there has not yet been a formal request for an extension, but she would like to see a detailed proposal with specifics, including solid estimates on time and money.
"I think families have said they don't want this to take forever," she said.
The commissioners produced 10 recommendation in its report, including a call for the creation of a "commemoration fund," that would help families remember their lost loved ones.
It also endorsed the idea of providing compensation to the families of a missing or murdered women through the creation of a "healing fund." The commissioners said the federal government should "immediately" commit to increase financial support, and counselling services for families and survivors.
Commissioners also suggest the government should restore funding to the now defunct Aboriginal Healing Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that funded various initiatives to help address the legacy of physical and sexual abuse suffered by survivors of the Indian residential school system. Funding for the foundation ran out in 2014.
MMIWG inquiry's interim report
MMIWG inquiry's interim report (PDF KB)
MMIWG inquiry's interim report (Text KB)