British Columbia

Q&A: Chief Commissioner Marion Buller reflects on MMIWG inquiry as public hearings wrap

Buller, chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, was in B.C. this week for the final public hearing.

'This is a national inquiry with a very strict timeline handling horrible, horrible subject matters'

The chief commissioner of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls reflects on her experience at the final public hearing in Vancouver. (CBC)

Marion Buller, chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, was in B.C. this week for the final public hearing. 

Buller has faced criticism from family members and survivors, who say the inquiry has been plagued with communication issues and internal struggles.

She sat down with CBC reporter Angela Sterritt to speak about the status of the inquiry and what comes next. A condensed version of their interview follows.

Here in B.C., we've already had a similar inquiry into serial killer Robert Pickton. How integral is this hearing in light of that history?

All of our hearings across Canada have been important in their own ways. But I think what makes Vancouver a little different is exactly the Pickton inquiry that occurred a couple of years ago here. It set a tone. It set a different type of tone for the hearings here. [That inquiry was called in 2010 to examine how Pickton was able to evade arrest for years. It was headed by former judge and B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal].

I think there was a great deal of scepticism, a great deal of been there, done that type of that.  

Many people were highly critical of the Pickton Inquiry. How difficult is that to follow?

We learned a lot from the inquiry. We learned a lot about how people expect to be treated or not in the course of a public inquiry. That really formed a lot of how we approached our work. From the very beginning, I said there would be no cross examination of witnesses, of family members, of survivors, period.

It was too damaging.

We also knew that we had to move away from a sterile, courtroom environment because that, in and of itself, is intimidating to a lot of people, lawyers included.

There's been a lot of criticism of this inquiry, too. How hard has it been to face this criticism?

All the training you can do or all the experience really doesn't prepare you for that. As a judge for 22 years, I got criticized a lot. It's still not the same.

There have been some flaws.

I think the best way of explaining it is we had to design the car, build the car, and then drive the car all at the same time. It was very challenging.

The difficulty that we faced is the clock is always ticking for us.

I can understand if people are frustrated, but this is a national inquiry with a very strict timeline handling horrible, horrible subject matters.

Buller sat down with CBC reporter Angela Sterritt. (CBC)

Also, a lot of people wanted to wait and see what it was going to look like before participating. I'm not being critical of them at all. I would feel the same way, but it just takes time to get things done.

There were so many resignations. Is there something you would have done different to prevent this massive exodus of people?  

I'm kind of hamstrung because I can't talk about the personal issues. What I can say is we did borrow a number of people from the federal government to help us get started. We started without anything other than the terms of reference.

They had to go back to their government jobs. The numbers [of people leaving] were inflated to a certain degree.

Would I do anything differently? I would make it very clear that this is extraordinarily hard work, difficult subject matter. It requires travelling for weeks on end and not everybody is up for that.

Did the government give you enough money to fulfil the mandate?

That's a difficult question to answer regarding funding and mandate because the $53.8 million, some very high-priced items were left out of that costing.

For example, we have to publish two reports, but the costing only included the cost of one report. So we had to take the cost of the second report and find that money elsewhere.

It's not only English-French translation, but translation into Indigenous languages as well.

How do you respond to people who want to get rid of all the commissioners or restart the inquiry?

I don't think people are ever satisfied. Monday morning, I can tell you every mistake that every football coach made. It's very easy to do that. It's another thing to do the job and to do it with a sense of mission, a sense of passion, a sense of integrity. That's difficult to do. I make no apologies. I make no excuses. That's how I do my job.

Would anything compel you to stand down?

I think that the only thing that would compel me to stand down and take a break would be a personal issue of some sort that I couldn't push aside. But no, I'm committed to finishing this work, doing it in a good way, doing it in a way that does justice to the women we've lost, the girls we've lost. To the women and girls who've survived violence.

This interview has been edited for clarity and structure.