Families question value of missing, murdered women inquiry

Families in the Ottawa-Gatineau area are still unsure if they'll register for the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, despite recognizing its importance.

'Is it going to help? I don't know,' says Ottawa-Gatineau area Indigenous advocate

Maisy Odjick, left, and Shannon Alexander, right, disappeared in 2008 from Maniwaki, Que. ((Courtesy of the Odjick and Alexander families))

Just months before commissioners begin hearing testimony as part of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, some Ottawa-Gatineau-area families are still unsure if they'll take part.

It's been more than eight years since Maisy Odjick, then 16, and Shannon Alexander, then 17, were last seen in Maniwaki, Que., just outside Kitigan Zibi First Nation.

"It's like a living nightmare," said Odjick's mother, Laurie Odjick. "I go to bed thinking about her. I wake up thinking about her. There's not a day that goes by when we don't think about her and it's gone on for too long." 

Odjick pushed for an inquiry after Maisy's disappearance and was "very pleased" when it was announced — now she's wondering if the federal government has "set them up for failure." 

"I'm still on the fence, because it's moving kind of slow," Odjick said. "Seriously. Two years? It takes a lot more time than two years."

'Is it going to help? I don't know'

The inquiry was called last summer, making good on a 2015 campaign promise made by the Liberals. However, it has been slow to collect names for its database.

So far, 147 people across the country have said they will take part in the inquiry. A spokesperson said it's difficult to know how many are from the Ottawa-Gatineau region because not everyone has included where they are from. 
Bridget Tolley, whose mother Gladys was killed in 2001, is embraced after the announcement of the inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women at the Museum of History in Gatineau in August 2016. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

"I'm kind of disappointed, because I thought the inquiry would be a bit different," said Bridget Tolley of the grassroots organization Families of Sisters in Spirit, who lives in Maniwaki, Que.

"I've been doing this for 15 years, and (what) I hear families talking about is help for families when they're missing, and help with the unsolved, and healing and stuff like this. But I don't think this is going to happen in this public inquiry."

Tolley and her organization have been holding rallies for years to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Her mother Gladys was struck and killed by a Sûreté du Québec cruiser in 2001, a case she'd like reopened.

Long delays, the limited engagement of families, and the fact that the inquiry hasn't begun recording testimonies yet have all shaken Tolley's confidence in the process.

"They already have a final date when the testimonies will stop for families, and it's in the fall. So that doesn't give much time for families," she said. 

Inquiry won't give answers families need

Both Tolley and Odjick have little hope the inquiry will help answer the questions that remain in the cases of their loved ones.

"I know that this national inquiry ain't going to bring back my child or give me answers that I need," said Odjick. "But I want some good to come from it." 
Laurie Odjick, whose daughter Maisy has been missing since 2008, says she hopes more families will register to be part of the inquiry so no one is forgotten. (Tom Parry/CBC)

Her biggest hope is that families of missing or murdered women will get more support — whether that's counselling, treatment for psychological trauma or a change in how police treat these cases. 

"A lot of families were not treated properly," she said. "There's no help for us out there. Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. We live with this day to day, everyday, and there's still no help."

In her case, Odjick said her daughter Maisy was immediately labelled as a runaway, rather than a "typical teenager" — someone who loved drawing, making her own clothes and spending time with her friends and family. 

"That does a lot of damage to the families and it does a lot of damage as to how people help you," she said. "There was no help because people believed that and people still believe that to this day."

Odjick said she'd like the inquiry to tackle what she believes is inherent racism in the justice system, but she doubts it will.

"I hope so," she said, "but in my heart, I don't think so."

Indigenous leaders should 'stand united'

Despite her hesitations about the inquiry's impact, Odjick said her meeting with inquiry commissioners last month has convinced her they have the best interest of families at heart.

Now she wants Indigenous leaders and organizations to stop "spewing negativity." 

"We see it all over. I see it on Facebook almost everyday — they're criticizing this national inquiry," she said. "We need to stand united, and a lot of the damage is from organizations giving negative comments on this inquiry." 

Odjick said she hasn't decided if she will register yet, but says she likely will and hopes others will as well.

Maisy Odjick was just 16 when she disappeared in September 2008. (Supplied by family)

"The families that can and are able to — yes, they need to sign up," she said. "I just want nobody forgotten." 

There's no deadline for family members to express their interest in the inquiry, but public hearings are set to begin this May.

With files from Waubgeshig Rice