British Columbia

'This has been the hardest job of my life,' says MMIWG inquiry commissioner

One of the four remaining commissioners on the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls inquiry finds it disheartening to hear of family members losing faith.

About 500 people have shared their stories through the inquiry, which is in Yellowknife this week

Michèle Audette, one of four commissioners at the MMIWG inquiry, says the work she is doing is hard, but incredibly important. (CBC)

Perpetual staff turnover, problematic communications, and concerns over aftercare has plagued the national inquiry looking into missing and murdered Indigenous women since it began in 2016. ​

Michèle Audette, one of the four remaining commissioners, finds it disheartening to hear of family members losing faith.

"People don't trust us anymore — people need to know who we are, we are kind, intelligent and very strong and capable to do this job," Audette says.

The bumpy road the inquiry is on has left some family members wondering if their stories will be heard and remembered.

"I had so much hope to be heard, and now it's just a sense of hopelessness and helplessness," says Roxanne Wilson, whose six-year old daughter was killed in 1989.

The commission has less than a year to go, and has yet to request an extension from the federal government.

Emotionally taxing work

Audette says some staff work seven days a week and up to 12 hours a day. For many, the work involves front-line outreach that can be emotionally taxing. 

"This is the hardest job I have ever done in my life," Audette says. 

Hiring staff, securing office space and updating phones has taken a lot longer than expected as the Privy Council Office has to sign off on everything.

Audette says the communication problems are not helped by having offices in many cities across Canada.

"We are so spread out, so it was hard to build a strong foundation and implement a strong communication strategy to explain the process," she says. 

The third executive director of the commission, Calvin Wong, started earlier this month replacing Debbie Reid, who left following controversy about a leaked email stating her top priority was to protect commissioners from criticism. 

Under Reid's watch as director, at least three staff members were fired; Morene Gabriel, Melissa Carlick and Jodie Millward.

Jodie Millward, a former health manager with the inquiry, says she still does not know why she was fired. (Courtesy of Jodie Millward)

"It was devastating, to be yanked out of it, it was really hard," says Millward, of Vancouver, who was the inquiry's former manager of health responsible for Alberta, B.C. and Yukon. She was fired Oct. 15 after only 14 weeks on the job. 

Her role was to manage health services for Indigenous families participating in the hearings, develop family healing plans, and manage support services for those appearing before the commission. However, she says the job often went beyond the description.

"There was no policy and no procedures put in place — there was nothing to protect the people doing this work," Millward says. 

"We were building the car while we were driving it, rather than stopping and proceeding, but we didn't have time for that," she says. 

Millward says she still does not know why she was fired.

There was no human resources policy at the inquiry up until about two weeks ago, according to Audette. Staff were told human resources issues were dealt with through Canada's Public Service Commission, but firings were done by senior supervisors with the inquiry.

About 500 people have already shared their stories through the inquiry and another hearing began in Yellowknife this week.

'We can't let this fail'

Francyne Joe, from the Shackan First Nation in B.C. and the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, blames inquiry leaders for the problems.

"At the end of the day the leader needs to step up, take responsibility, step out of the way or move forward with a plan and start leading," she says. 

CBC News reached out to the inquiry for a comment from chief commissioner Marion Buller, but communications staff say they are still looking into the request.

Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission examining residential schools also had internal issues in the early days. It was forced to restart just six months in, after similar leadership issues, and the chief commissioner finally resigned. When it restarted, there was a new leadership strategy and ended with a significant set of recommendations for Canada.

Some Indigenous leaders in Canada have called for a reset of the MMIWG inquiry.

Terry Teegee, a regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, says it's time to figure out how to fix the national inquiry for the benefit of families. (Submitted by Terry Teegee)

Assembly of First Nations B.C. Regional Chief Terry Teegee says national Indigenous organizations should have been a part of the inquiry's development and planning, but says now it's time to look at the bigger picture.

"For many years we have been calling for a national inquiry, and it's here, and to the best of our abilities, we can't let this fail," Teegee says.

"It's quite important that we figure this out and support the inquiry, but at the same time, we need to make it function."


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.