MMIWG inquiry now reviewing conduct of police officers

The national inquiry charged with uncovering the underlying reasons behind the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls announced Thursday it is reviewing police conduct.

Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls had called for examination of police bias

A photograph of Terrie Ann Dauphinais is seen as participants hug after singing a song during a 24-Hour Sacred Gathering of Drums protest calling for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in May 2014. Dauphinais was found killed in her Calgary home on April 29, 2002, and the case remains unsolved. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Police conduct will now be reviewed as part of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

After the inquiry was pressured by families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to look at police actions in such cases, a news release Thursday said staff have assembled a forensic team that is currently reviewing police files.

"The national inquiry can and will consider the conduct of policing services and policies across Canada in 14 federal, provincial and territorial jurisdictions," the news release said.

According to Bernée Bolton, director of communications, looking at police conduct is mandated in the inquiry's terms of reference. However, as it stand now the document makes no mention of investigating police conduct explicitly, but does say the inquiry can report misconduct of any kind to "the appropriate authorities."

"The work by the forensic team will provide a credible basis for findings of fact and recommendations so we can identify systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls," Bolton wrote in an email.

The inquiry is also gathering information about police conduct through its community hearings, expert panels and institutional hearings, she said.

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Thursday's announcement comes the same day the Assembly of First Nations discussed its position on the inquiry.

On Wednesday at the AFN gathering in Regina, two inquiry commissioners were heavily criticized for failing to build relationships with families.

The inquiry, which is charged with uncovering the underlying reasons behind the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls, has done a poor job communicating with families and updating the public about its work, many have said.

Bernice Catcheway criticized the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls at the Assembly of First Nations in Regina Wednesday. (CBC)

One of the advocates leading the charge is Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, co-chair of the Manitoba Coalition for Families of the Missing and Murdered.

Anderson-Pyrz's sister, Dawn Anderson, was found dead of exposure in 2011 in Leaf Rapids, Man. While her death was ruled accidental, Anderson-Pyrz believes she was killed and that police failed to follow up on leads that pointed to foul play.

Investigating police is critical

Anderson-Pyrz said across the country she has heard from families who believe their loved one's cases were mishandled by police. She wonders why investigating policing is not explicitly mentioned in the inquiry's terms of reference.

"[The commissioners] heard with the pre-inquiry engagement sessions how important policing was and how it needed to be included," Anderson-Pyrz said. "It's a critical component of the national inquiry."

Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls have long criticized police handling of their loved ones' cases, raising concerns about racism and bias.

Bernice Catcheway, mother of Jennifer Catcheway who was last seen in 2008, has for years blamed police for disregarding her daughter's disapearance when she first went missing.

At the AFN gathering Wednesday, Catcheway fought back tears to demand the inquiry look closely at policing.

"What about the police? … Right across Canada there's broken hearts, broken spirits because nobody's listening to us," she said.

An online document prepared by the commission about what it can and cannot do says the inquiry is not allowed to interfere with ongoing police cases, re-investigate cases or assign blame for a failed investigation.

It can, however, make findings on the existence of racism and discrimination in the criminal justice system and on the competency of police response.

While the inquiry is national in scope, the Thursday release tempered expectations of what types of conclusions it can make regarding different police forces across the country.

For example, in British Columbia, the inquiry cannot make findings of misconduct, while in Ontario it can.

"In all jurisdictions," the release states, "the national inquiry can refer information on specific cases back to authorities for reinvestigation."

with files from Tim Fontaine, Martha Troian and Karen Pauls