MMIWG commission counsel Christa Big Canoe responds to inquiry criticism

MMIWG inquiry legal counsel Christa Big Canoe tells host Duncan McCue about the delicate nature of grassroots community building and the work that commission staff are doing behind the scenes.
MMIWG commission counsel Christa Big Canoe is an Indigenous lawyer known for her work with the Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto and advocacy for Indigenous women. (CBC)

Amidst the high-level departures and controversies surrounding the MMIWG inquiry, critics have pointed to a lack of community outreach and poor public communications as key examples of the commission's failings. Indigenous lawyer Christa Big Canoe is one of 10 legal counsel for the inquiry. A member of the Georgina Island First Nation community in Ontario, Big Canoe tells host Duncan McCue about the delicate nature of grassroots community building and the work that commission staff are doing behind the scenes.

Listen to their conversation:

Indigenous lawyer Christa Big Canoe tells Checkup host Duncan McCue about the delicate nature of grassroots community building and the work that MMIWG commission staff are doing behind the scenes. 8:45

Duncan McCue: You are the legal counsel for the inquiry, so I'm sure you've got some views on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's Inquiry. 

Christa Big Canoe: Yes, I'm one of 10 legal counsel under the Lead Counsel Susan Vella. 

DM: So when we're asking the question today: 'Is this inquiry doomed?' What goes through your head?

CB: Well I think the first thing I asked myself is why aren't we asking questions like, 'How 
can we succeed?' or 'What steps need to be taken or listened to by family and community members to make it a better process?'

DM: There have been a number of concerns raised by families on the show today about 
the process. I mean concerns about communication, for example. What do you think can be fixed? And what does the inquiry need to be doing better?

CB: Certainly. Some of the longer term vision includes working on better communications, but [also] working with families. As recently as today, we've heard from families from the Yukon who have expressed concerns and the concerns work from different perspectives. 
They've invested in this process to tell their stories and to share their stories and they really want to make sure that you know the outcome is going to be strong recommendations and change that all Canadians can actually you know hold onto. 

DM: And so what kind of steps is the inquiry taking to try to improve some of those communication gaps?

CB: We are aware it's a legal process but one of the things we can do is empower people to better understand the process that they're in. There's going to be some communications [put] out that are sort of in plain language - but also translated into some Indigenous language. We are going to be touching base more and putting more information out.
We are actually communicating with a number of families and survivors. We're travelling into communities. We have and we're continuing to do so even next week and the following week. And that gives us the opportunity to do a little more one-on-one - that is important.
There's an adaptability that's really important and we saw that in the Yukon. If things weren't working well, the community was quite vocal in telling us that it has to be a certain way. The commissioners and staff are quite flexible about trying to create it in such a way that there was purpose for the participants. 

DM: You may have just heard our last caller who is a family member - his sister went missing - he said that this process is just too legal. Is there a way to try to reach grassroots people and to do community building? Which is what former commissioner Marilyn Poitras is concerned there isn't enough of.

CB: There is community building going on, particularly when we travel into the communities as a team of staff and have the opportunity to meet with community leadership. But you know it's a big country and I think we want to keep working on developing that relationship, absolutely. 

And for the grassroots level I think, you know, a lot more communication needs to happen on what the process actually involves. The hearings that you saw from the Yukon, those were only the public hearings. There were also in camera hearings - now that is a legal term, but it's put into place to protect people and to ensure that they're safe so they can tell the stories in a safe way. We're also doing - in some locations where it's appropriate - circle hearings and those aren't always publicly broadcast.

So I think the big thing is getting some more information about the process out there. We have to be informed by the indigenous local protocols around ceremony and practice and what community members want. We have a very diverse indigenous population in Canada and so in different geographical areas [protocol is] also different. 
We just have to keep building the array of opportunities for people to understand the process and to engage in the process. 

DM: The first report - the interim report - needs to be submitted November 1, 2017. The commissioner who just resigned, Marilyn Poitras, expressed concerns that this is just going to be another study. What would you say to that?

CB: We have this massive mandate but one of the things right within the terms of reference - and that all the Orders in Council from all 14 jurisdictions have pointed to - is relying on some of the pre-existing research. So not 'rebuilding the wheel' but looking at those [previous] reports. 

Almost any inquiry or process commission, when you have an interim report part of it is reflective and part of it is to identify gaps. So I think you know with the committed staff working on it, we're going to see a good glimpse into what's happened: people are going to have an opportunity to see what's been done to date and where we're going. 

Duncan McCue and Christa Big Canoe's comments have been edited and condensed. This online segment was prepared by Ashley Mak on July 16, 2017. 


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