MMIW inquiry needs 'teeth,' Hamilton Aboriginal group says

A Hamilton Aboriginal group says Wednesday's official announcement of a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls is a move in the right direction — but needs weight behind it before real change will happen.

'How many of these things are sitting on the shelf collecting dust,' Susan Barberstock says

The executive director of the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre says the official launch of an inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls is a positive step, but she still has concerns. (Peter McCabe/Canadian Press)

A Hamilton Aboriginal group says Wednesday's official announcement of a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls is a move in the right direction — but needs weight behind it before real change will happen.

"There needs to be teeth to the recommendations to see that they're acted upon," said Susan Barberstock, the executive director of the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre.

B.C.'s first female First Nations judge Marion Buller will lead Canada's inquiry, which will begin Sept. 1 and run until Dec. 31, 2018, at a cost estimated at $53.8 million.

​The inquiry will examine the factors driving a systemic, high rate of violence against Indigenous women and girls, and the role of various institutions, including police forces, governments and coroners' offices.

It will also review various federal and provincial laws, but will not find criminal liability. Certain matters can be referred to police.

It's that lack of criminal liability that worries Barberstock, and others. That kind of language may serve to undermine the inquiry's ability to move real change, rendering it a little more than a limp pile of recommendations by the end of 2018.

"How many of these things are sitting on the shelf collecting dust?" she asked.

Authorities rule no foul play in 32 indigenous deaths 

The need for the inquiry can be felt at the national level and at the local level. One example is the death of Tanya Hill, whose body was found, face down and nearly naked in her Barton Street East apartment in 2011.

Hill's death was deemed accidental, the result of toxic alcohol levels in her system, according to the official coroner's report her family received.

But that coroner's report also states, on the day Hill's body was found, her boyfriend told police, "My girlfriend was killed last night."

CBC News investigated the 32 deaths, Hill's included, and the two disappearances of Indigenous women across Canada, in which authorities ruled there was no foul play.

Despite official rulings of suicide or accidental death, CBC News found evidence in some cases of unexplained injuries, suspicious circumstances, failure to interview key witnesses and persons of interest who have never been convicted.

'We need to start educating people on historical trauma'

Barberstock says that in many cases, it seems like cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women are dismissed more readily, because they can involve marginalized people who are "not looked upon very highly in society."

Couple that with a distrust of authority that some Aboriginal people have left over from the country's residential school scandal and it makes for strained relations between indigenous groups and police, she says.

"We need to start educating people on historical trauma," she said.

"I don't think we have a good working relationship between police and Aboriginal organizations."  

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett called Wednesday's announcement of the inquiry's details a "historic" day, and praised victims' family members who were in attendance in Ottawa for sharing their "heart-wrenching" stories to help set the parameters of the inquiry.

"They left no doubt in our minds about the urgent need to examine the underlying and deep, systemic challenges of this violence, including racism, sexism and the sustained impact of colonialism," she said.

Though Barberstock has concerns concerns, seeing progress on the MMIW issue is heartening, she says.

"I think it sends the message that we are finally being heard on something that has been an issue for a very long time."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Hamilton home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.