British Columbia

'Lives depend on this': B.C. families of MMIWG ready to testify at national inquiry, but doubts remain

Family members are poised to share stories of violence, anguish, tragedy and resilience in Richmond, B.C., at the final public hearing of the national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Commissioner speaks about difficulties in inquiry and expresses empathy for families

Lorelei Williams is one of many family member of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls who will testify in Richmond, B.C. this week. While she long advocated for the commission, she says she is now having doubts about the effectiveness of it. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

Sitting in the living room of her mother's house in Alert Bay, B.C., Roxana Wilson says her anxiety is growing.

The room has a yellow accent wall covered with framed family photos, including photos of Wilson's daughter, Adriana Cecil Wadhams, who was brutally murdered in 1989.

"A six-year-old who was so loving, so full of energy and so boisterous," Wilson recalls.

Roxana Wilson, whose daughter Adriana Cecil Wadhams was brutally murdered in 1989, will be testifying in Richmond, B.C., for the final public hearings of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women commission. (Roxana Wilson)

Wilson is one of dozens of people scheduled to testify Wednesday, in Richmond, B.C., at the final public hearing of the national inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

"I've been having my moments. You can never prepare for something like this," she said.

"I can't believe the date is finally here to be able to share my story and share her story and give her a voice.

"Everything has been so surreal."

Family members are poised to share stories of violence, anguish, tragedy and resilience. Some are apprehensive about the commission, which has been fraught with controversy almost since it launched.

But regardless of bumps in the road, families say their lives depend on this.

A photo of Adriane Cecile Wadhams, Roxana Wilson's daughter, who was murdered at age six.

'This is all we've got right now'

For almost a decade, Lorelei Williams fought for this commission.

She is seeking justice for her cousin, Tanya Holyk, whose DNA was found on the farm of serial killer Robert Pickton, and for her aunt, Belinda, who has been missing for 40 years.

But hearing about the inquiry's numerous firings and resignations, she's afraid it won't uncover what it set out to do.

"I lost all confidence," said Lorelei Williams. "I was on the fence but then I started to teeter toward maybe this inquiry isn't good."

Still, she says for those who have yet to share their stories — some of unimaginable violence — this is imperative.

"This is all we've got right now, so many Indigenous women's lives depend on this," Williams said.

Lorelei Williams has long been a voice advocating for a national inquiry. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

Commission's work 'very challenging'

Chief Commissioner Marion Buller has faced criticism from family members like Williams, who say the inquiry has been plagued with communication issues and internal struggles.

"I can understand that people would be frustrated and had other expectations, but this is a national inquiry with a strict timeline handling horrible, horrible subject matter," Buller said.

Chief Commissioner Marion Buller is aware of the criticism the commission has faced from some families. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

The commission had to "design the car, build the car and drive the car all at the same time," she said, as the process was developed and put into practice at the same time.

"It was very challenging," Buller added.

Once the public hearings are done, there are still more community hearings and institution hearings. The final report must also be translated into several Indigenous languages and be completed by the end of the year.

Buller has asked the federal government for an extension beyond the commission's two-year mandate, but has yet to hear back.

Repeating mistakes?

Lawyer Kasari Govender, the executive director of West Coast Legal Education & Action Fund, is concerned that the inquiry goes down the same road as the Pickton inquiry, which alienated family members.

"That's the exact disconnect we need to address that continually fails indigenous people, especially Indigenous women and girls," she said.

To the commission's credit, Govender says, its process far surpasses the Pickton Inquiry, which cross-examined women on the stand.

She says these commissioners take cues from families and makes efforts to Indigenize the process.

B.C. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender says the B.C. government should collect data on the ethnicity of COVID-19 cases and consult with the affected communities on how the data is used and shared. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

For some family members, the inquiry is about justice but also about healing.

"For some families this might be their first time and this might start their healing journey," Williams said.

"I've had the ability to tell my story over and over again, but this might be their only chance."


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea?