MMIW inquiry: Indigenous activist raises concerns days before it begins

A Winnipeg-based activist whose sister disappeared eight years ago says days before the inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing Indigenous women starts, she worries voices from remote First Nations communities won't be heard.

Bernadette Smith worries inquiry won't include enough voices

Bernadette Smith's sister Claudette Osborne disappeared in 2008 and hasn't been seen since. (CBC)

A Winnipeg-based activist whose sister disappeared eight years ago says while she thinks many good things will come from an inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing Indigenous women, she also worries voices from some First Nations communities won't be heard.

Bernadette Smith's sister Claudette Osborne was 21 when she was reported missing in 2008.

"It's been tough because you don't have the answers, and you try to keep those memories alive for her children," Smith said. "My sister was just someone who was full of life. She had this contagious laugh, she loved to be around family, she was just always happy.… She is missed every day."

One of Smith's biggest concerns is that the inquiry, which is scheduled to start Thursday, won't be accessible for the majority of First Nations people in remote regions "that really need them to be there."

"They're going to expect people to come to the urban areas, but a lot of people are fearful of coming to urban areas, because that's where a lot of the violence has happened," Smith said.

Claudette Osborne was 21 when she went missing in 2008. (Manitoba Integrated Task Force)

"There's a number of young girls that have come to Winnipeg to go to school, because they don't have high schools in their First Nation, and they've been murdered. Parents are fearful of that."

Like advocates such as Nahanni Fontaine, the NDP member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly for St. Johns, Smith believes the inquiry needs to take a hard look at the role police institutions have played in MMIW investigations.

"My sister's case, it was 10 days before they even started investigating," Smith said. "I'd like to see that there are some changes there in policies."

Smith said despite her doubts about how effective the inquiry will be, she hopes it goes beyond passive information gathering and actively starts to work on solutions to the MMIW problem as suggestions come in.

She doesn't want to wait two years only to see an inquiry report come out that doesn't translate into action.

"I think we need to look at ourselves as Canadians as a whole. This inquiry isn't going to solve everything. It's going to identify some things that need to change and a lot of it is going to have to change with us, with us Canadians really taking a look at how we look at each other, how we treat each other and … looking at each other as humans," Smith said.

"The othering needs to stop. [The] 'I don't live in the North End; I don't need to worry about it. I'm not a woman; I don't need to worry about that. I'm not Indigenous; that doesn't affect me.' Everything that happens, whether it's crime or death or a result of someone going missing, it affects everyone right across this country, because it could happen to anyone.

"Our family certainly never ever thought that we'd be in this position. Eight years later, we're still wondering where our sister is, so it could happen to anyone."

On Aug. 3, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett named five commissioners to the national inquiry. The inquiry officially begins Sept. 1.