Families take MMIWG inquiry to Federal Court seeking right to be heard

MMIWG inquiry ignored request from 20 families seeking a larger role, court filing says

Posted: March 08, 2018

Photographs of the missing and murdered are displayed during the Thunder Bay hearing of National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

A group of 20 families has gone to court against the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls over its refusal to consider their request for standing at the hearings.

The families filed for a judicial review with the Federal Court on Thursday seeking a ruling giving them standing along with funding to participate before the inquiry.


"They were left with no choice," said Suzan Fraser, the Toronto-based lawyer representing the families.

"Essentially the inquiry denied the application by simply ignoring the families."

The judicial review application also asks the Federal Court to order the inquiry to at least consider their request for standing if an outright order to grant them standing is not possible. The families are not seeking to stop the inquiry and have requested an expedited hearing.

Want equal footing

Fraser is representing families from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec.

"Families in this group want more than to give their intimate accounts of the most painful moment of their lives and be sent on their way," said Fraser.

"[They] want to be on equal footing with the other parties with standing, to have access to materials, to be able to make submissions."

Standing has been granted to 95 groups, including the federal government and the governments of all 13 provinces and territories, the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, First Nations, Inuit and Métis women's groups and several police services.

Inquiry seeking extension

The court action comes two days after the inquiry announced it had requested a two-year extension to its mandate and an additional $50 million to complete its work from Ottawa.

The inquiry has faced a number of high profile resignations and firings and allegations of fostering a toxic work environment over the past year.

The inquiry is holding hearings in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L, this week. It moves on to Thompson, Man., and Montreal later this month, and a hearing is scheduled for Vancouver in April.

Fraser said it was "unprecedented" for an inquiry of this type to simply ignore a legal application for standing.

"Inquiries have a duty to deal with applications that come before them," said Fraser.

"This inquiry is no exception."

Toronto lawyer Suzan Fraser is representing 20 families who want standing at the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (submitted by Suzan Fraser)

The families initially applied for standing on Nov. 21, 2017. While the inquiry acknowledged receipt of their request, it never formally responded, according to their court filing.

Fraser followed up with the inquiry on Dec.1, 2017, requesting information on whether the application would be considered. She was told then-executive director Debbie Reid and inquiry lawyer Jennifer Cox were best positioned to respond.

Fraser again requested information from the inquiry on Jan. 11. Reid then resigned from her position and the inquiry never responded.

The court filing argues that while the request was filed after the May 2017 deadline for standing applications, the inquiry never clearly informed the families of the difference between participating and having standing at the inquiry.

"By withholding the the information, they prejudiced the families," said Fraser.

The court filing said standing would provide families with the ability to "contribute to the policy recommendations … in a focused and meaningful way" and to "have equal footing with all other legal players and parties with standing to contribute to the broader societal issues."

Alaya McIvor says she does not believe in the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. She is part of a group of 20 families that has taken the inquiry to Federal Court seeking standing. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Alaya McIvor, a survivor of sex trafficking whose cousin was killed, said she joined the group because she felt the inquiry was not involving the families enough in its work. McIvor said she participated in the Winnipeg hearings and came away disappointed.

"It wasn't family-centred, and they didn't have proper support within our jurisdiction," said McIvor.

"A lot of family members were discouraged by inquiry legal counsel not to share their loved one's stories. Or, if survivors came forward, they were told not to share their stories publicly and that led them to giving up even attempting to tell their stories."

McIvor's cousin, Roberta Dawn McIvor, 31, was killed in the summer of 2011 during a carjacking by two teens aged 17 and 15 on the Sandy Bay First Nation.

The inquiry could not be immediately reached for comment.

The inquiry said it has so far heard from at least 728 family members and survivors and 700 more are registered to testify.


Jorge Barrera

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him