Families hopeful, advocates unsure as MMIW inquiry gets underway

Hope was in the air Tuesday as the federal government launched its national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. But some advocates remain concerned over whether the inquiry will lead to the kind of solutions families of victims deserve.

'I'm hoping that the outcome will be greater than the announcement,' First Nations elder says

Hope was in the air Tuesday as the federal government launched its national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. But some advocates remain concerned over whether the inquiry will lead to the kind of solutions families of victims deserve. 1:44

Hope was in the air Tuesday as the federal government launched its national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW). But some advocates remain concerned over whether the inquiry will lead to the kind of solutions they say families of victims deserve.

The sister of a woman who died four years ago said she feels empowered by the announcement.

"It's very hopeful to indigenous people across Canada that this government is actually hearing what people have been saying, like our people have been saying for years," said Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, adding she is happy the Liberal government is taking a family-first approach to the inquiry.

Anderson-Pyrz's sister, Dawn Anderson, froze to death just steps from her front door in Leaf Rapids in 2011. Her death was ruled as exposure due to intoxication and was not deemed suspicious, RCMP said at the time.

Anderson-Pyrz remains convinced there is more to the story of her sister's death.

"I have a really hard time with that, because I think, at the time they found her, they didn't know how she died," Anderson-Pyrz said. "Why would they just automatically assume there was no foul play or nothing was suspicious? Today, it still really bothers me."

Including families

Status of Women Minister Patricia Hajdu, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett outlined the first of two phases of a much-awaited national public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women on Tuesday in Ottawa.

Phase one will begin with consulting families on how they want to see the inquiry conducted.

Anderson-Pyrz said she's glad the three ministers leading the first phase of the inquiry are willing to listen.

"I really like when they say it has to be a collaborative, collective approach in order to be successful…. It has to be  respectful and inclusive," she said.
Bernadette Smith's sister Claudette Osborne, has been missing since 2008. (CBC)

"I want to see a better tomorrow for our indigenous women and girls; that we live in a society that doesn't target us as indigenous women and girls; that we are able to live freely and a life free of violence."

Bernadette Smith, whose sister Claudette Osbone has been missing from Winnipeg since 2008, said she is curious about who will lead the first phase. Smith said she'd like to see three commissioners — two women and one man — lead the inquiry.
Nahanni Fontaine, Manitoba’s special advisor on aboriginal women’s issues, flew to Ottawa early Tuesday morning for the announcement. (CBC)

"A lot of these stories are going to be hard stories and they have to be emotionally prepared to, you know, take those stories on," she said. "Because you don't just hear a story and then you go home to your family. It's something that you carry with you."

Smith said she feels Manitoba has been leading the way in terms of supporting families of MMIW. She believes Nahanni Fontaine, Manitoba's special advisor on aboriginal women's issues, should be part of the inquiry.

"She should be a part of it because she has been working on this issue for 16-plus years," she said.

'In tears' after announcement

Iskatewizaagegan First Nation councillor Karen Kejick "was in tears" after the launch.

"I've been waiting for the announcement," she said. Kejick hopes the inquiry will bring healing to families and the wider society, she said.

"Every family is going to have a different recommendation in how they feel safe and what public safety means to them based on their story," she said.

Policing, public safety, how missing persons cases are investigated and female participation in the economy are just a few of the key areas Kejick hopes an inquiry will examine.

Elder Chickadee Richard said that on one level, Canadians have to trust Justin Trudeau's promise to rebuild relationships with First Nations and provide solutions to the MMIW crisis. But she also remains skeptical.

"I'm hoping that the outcome will be greater than the announcement," she said. "There's a lot of things that are flawed, that have made our women vulnerable and so for me, I think I would rather see the outcome and the results of this inquiry rather than the announcement of being excited about something."

Manitoba 'strongly supports' inquiry 

"I think this has been a long time coming for indigenous people across Canada. It's something I've been working on as a part of this government since 2008 and we've been advocating and trying to advance the issue with the national government," said Eric Robinson, Manitoba Aboriginal and Northern Affairs minister.

Robinson said while he would like to see more details of the strategy, the announcement demonstrates the government is heading in the right direction.

"At first we were told this wasn't a priority by the previous government.... But we're happy the new federal government has chosen to work with the indigenous peoples."

Ministers in Ottawa announced the first of two phases of a much-anticipated national public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. (CBC)

Robinson stressed that it is important that an effective, thorough action plan be in place that is committed to including families of victims.

"I think they want to get it right the first time as opposed to previous inquiries and commissions," Robinson said. "This is going to be done in a different way, in a more substantive fashion where families and victims are going to be heard from first and foremost. They want to get it done right."

Ko'ona Cochrane, program manager for Manitoba Moon Voices, said she wants to be hopeful, but she remains unsure of how to feel about the inquiry.

"In the history of Canada, all of these recommendations, no matter whether they are inquiries, oral commissions — what happens to the recommendations in the end?" Cochrane asked.

"The implementation process falls short.... You can learn all this wonderful stuff, but if you're not implementing it and acting it, then it's not really serving any purpose."

MKO grand chief optimistic 

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson said it was encouraging to see victims' families involved in the announcement. 

"There is a great optimism and recognition that a lot of work has gone into this, and we remember our families," she said.

North Wilson hopes the inquiry will be far-reaching and investigate regional differences and how they relate to missing and murdered girls and women. 

"For example in Manitoba, the north and south have different issues, so we need to be aware of that and make sure we are inclusive with everyone who needs to be heard, not just the loudest voices or even the most obvious," said North Wilson.