'High hopes' for MMIWG national inquiry in Edmonton

Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women will get the chance to share their experiences before the national inquiry, which is holding its hearings in Edmonton this week.

Daughter of one victim remains 'guarded and realistic because our people have been continually failed'

Stephanie Harpe, shown at the Esquao Awards, is one of nearly 60 witnesses preparing to speak to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls when it meets in Edmonton. (Brad Crowfoot Photography)

Every day for the past 18 years, Stephanie Harpe has carried an unrelenting anguish from the death of her mother.

Ruby Anne McDonald was found dead in an Edmonton apartment building in 1999.

Harpe, now 40, has since dedicated herself to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and is set to speak in Edmonton on Tuesday with a team from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

"I am brave. I am strong. I am a healed woman," Harpe said.

Harpe will be one of 58 witnesses who will share their experiences with the inquiry team in Edmonton.

"I'm honoured and I'm ready," she said.

Opening ceremonies for the event take place Monday afternoon with the lighting of a sacred fire.

The inquiry is investigating the national tragedy of the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls across Canada. RCMP have identified 1,200 victims between 1980 and 2012, though some experts believe the real number is much higher.

"I have high hopes," Harpe said of the inquiry, which handed down an interim report last week.

Stephanie Harpe, shown presenting at the Edmonton Music Awards 2017, will be talking to the National Inquiry on Tuesday. (Brad Crowfoot Photography)

The 119-page report released initial findings and recommendations promising to expose some "hard truths about the devastating impacts of colonization, racism and sexism."  

Harpe said these impacts were felt in her mother's case. She said police were too slow to consider foul play. She wants to see concrete suggestions from the inquiry, which she said can build trust in Indigenous communities.

"What we need is RCMP, city police, judges, lawyers and the federal government to have Indigenous representation in all of these areas," she said.

'Poverty, discrimination and isolation'

While the inquiry has made it clear it may not be able to find the answers on individual cases, it does have the authority to examine police practices.

It's also looking at the impacts of the child welfare system, in addition to the treatment of Indigenous people in places like hospitals and prisons.

They're all issues Muriel Stanley Venne has been raising for years as the president and founder of the Edmonton-based Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women.

"In 2004 and 2005, we visited Aboriginal women right across Canada," Stanley Venne said. "There was hardly any difference in what they said [then].

"What came out was poverty, discrimination and isolation."

Muriel Stanley Venne, speaking at the unveiling of a building named for her in October, wants the inquiry to find ways to deal with the root causes that lead to Indigenous women being marginalized. (CBC)

The Alberta government is keeping a close eye on the inquiry.

"We will look at all the recommendations and make decisions about ways we can be supportive," said Richard Feehan, Alberta's minister of Indigenous relations.

Feehan said Alberta is already making headway on some of the key themes raised in the inquiry's interim report.

Feehan said the education ministry's plan to tackle racism will have far-reaching impact across the province. He believes the ministry will make recommendations to deal with some long-time complaints about the justice system.

"Many of [the recommendations] will, of course, speak directly to the issue of racism or other difficulties that may be experienced in the legal system," Feehan said. The recommendations from the education ministry's review are expected by the end of 2017.

Indigenous people 'continually failed'

While the inquiry has been dogged by some claims it's not moving quickly enough on its assignment, chief commissioner Marion Buller said her team is handling a painstaking task in the right way.

"Remember, nobody has done this before," Buller told CBC News. "We're in all provinces and territories."

Chief commissioner Marion Buller said the National Inquiry is making impressive progress by earning the trust of families and giving them a voice. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Buller said the progress already made is something to be proud of, especially given the trust the inquiry is gaining with families across the country.

"We're hearing from people who, for the first time, are disclosing what has happened to them," she said.

Harpe said she's also staying positive and hopes the inquiry leads to the kind of change she's been pushing for.

"I'm also guarded and realistic because our people have been continually failed," she said.

After Monday's opening ceremony, the inquiry will hear from families on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

The deadline for the inquiry's final report is Dec. 31, 2018.

About the Author

Gareth Hampshire is an award-winning journalist who has been covering Edmonton for CBC News since 1998.