Tuesday April 04, 2017

'No quick fixes' to speed up MMIWG inquiry, says lawyer

“The inquiry itself is not the solution”: Pam Palmater, Mi'kmaw lawyer and professor, on lessons learned from past inquiries 0:54

Listen 21:58

This special edition of The Current is a public forum held at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., across the river from Parliament Hill. The forum explored the work of the national inquiry into MMIWG and connected that to the larger project of reconciliation.  

​WATCH The Current's five-minute virtual reality documentary about the Highway of Tears.

Read story transcript

Seven months after the Liberal government launched an inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, concerns are being raised about the inquiry's pace, terms of reference, and communication with stakeholders.

"I think that the commissioner and all of the team members at the inquiry are well aware of the frustration that exists," Christa Big Canoe tells The Current's host Anna Maria Tremonti.

"It does seem like a long time, " she says. 

"It's been seven months since the commissioners were given the mandate."  

Ottawa Public Forum

Christa Big Canoe, senior counsel for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls national inquiry. (Barry Gray)

As senior counsel of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls National Inquiry, Big Canoe says the pace is due to the enormity of the task.

She tells Tremonti it's a lot of work to get the pieces in place and "there's no quick fixes" to ensure the hearing and proceedings will be properly done.

Ahead of the town halls that begin in April and the hearings that are set to launch in May, Big Canoe says the team is working on improving communication with family members.

But that doesn't address one serious criticism of the inquiry— its terms of reference.

In response to that concern, Big Canoe says families need to understand the limits of the inquiry.

"There's no way the commissioners will make finding of criminal or civil fault," she says.

"But that doesn't preclude them from looking at systemic issues, from actually looking at cases — not to reopen or reinvestigate them but to actually review what the investigations have done, so they can identify where they see patterns and problems."

Despite these issues, Big Canoe says she's hopeful about the work of the inquiry and says getting the issue on the nation's public record is an important step.

"I want the world and all Canadians to be alive to this issue."​

Mi'kmaw lawyer Pam Palmater is less hopeful. She tells Tremonti that the families of victims want justice and police accountability.

"I think there is a huge expectation... even though the terms of reference failed to give families what they wanted."

"It’s been hurting for 15 years": Bridget Tolley talks to Anna Maria Tremonti about moving forward and her search for justice for her mother.0:49

Palmater, who is also chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University, says the federal government deserves credit for living up to its promise for launching an inquiry.

But she tells Tremonti that the time frame, budget, and sheer scope of the problem mean that the commissioners of the inquiry are faced with a massive task.

Pam Palmater

Pam Palmater, Mi'kmaw lawyer, activist and professor at Ryerson. (Barry Gray)

"This inquiry is now faced with doing the best it can."

Palmater says there are other processes that can be used outside of the inquiry to pursue justice and address some of the systemic issues at the core of the MMIW and girls epidemic.

For example, says Palmater, "we can do something about the lack of police accountability."

"We can shine a light on dark places." 

Palmater says Canadians will need to keep pushing the federal government when the inquiry comes to an end.

"So if this inquiry can't review cases well then, wherever this inquiry falls down because of this limited terms of reference, then it's going to be up to the government to stand up and fill in those gaps."

"The inquiry itself is not the solution. It's the action that's going to come out afterwards."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This event is part of a series of public forums hosted by The Current across the country to explore the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The Ottawa/Gatineau MMIW public forum was produced by The Current's Josh Bloch, Kristin Nelson and Kathleen Goldhar. Videos by Ruby Buiza.