Saskatoon

MMIWG inquiry needs 'reset' and 'restructuring' after resignation of Sask. commissioner: FSIN vice-chief

A Saskatchewan Indigenous leader says Marilyn Poitras's decision to resign from the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls points to serious flaws in the current inquiry process.

One Saskatchewan mother calls resignation a setback but hopes inquiry moves forward

Marilyn Poitras, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, has resigned from the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

A Saskatchewan Indigenous leader says Marilyn Poitras's decision to resign from the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls points to serious flaws in the current inquiry process.

"It's a matter of restructuring, of pressing reset and making sure this is done in the most respectful engaging way with the families," said Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations First Vice-Chief Kimberly Jonathan.

Poitras, who is Métis, stepped down suddenly from the five-member commission, citing issues with the "current structure" of the inquiry.

In a written statement to CBC News, Poitras, a University of Saskatchewan law professor, said when she began work on the inquiry she had "imagined the chance to put Indigenous process first; to seek out and rely on Indigenous laws and protocols."

In the statement, she said she felt too many people involved in the inquiry did not share that vision. 

"After serving on this commission for the past 10 months, I realized the vision I hold is shared by very few within the national inquiry" and "the status quo colonial model of hearings is the path for most," the statement said. 

Local family hopes work will continue 

Criticism began to mount even before the inquiry's hearings began. In an open letter last May, many family members of murdered or missing Indigenous women said the inquiry was "in serious trouble."

One of the people who signed that letter was Diane Bigeagle, whose daughter Danita Faith — a member of Ocean Man First Nation in southeastern Saskatchewan — has been missing since 2007. Since Danita's disappearance, Bigeagle has become an outspoken advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women.

On Tuesday, she said is upset the process is still being plagued by resignations. 

"It really upsets when you hear this. It's a setback. It's a setback for us. I want to find my daughter so bad and I need their help. They all need their help," Bigeagle said.

Diane Bigeagle, whose daughter Danita Faith Bigeagle disappeared in 2007, says the resignation is a 'setback' but she hopes the inquiry will continue its work. (Jacob Morgan/CBC)

She said, however, she hopes the inquiry will continue to move forward.

"My hope is still there and my trust. We've got to believe that they are going to fulfil their promise to us," she said. 

FSIN's Jonathan supports decision

Poitras is the first commissioner to resign and so far there is no indication if, or when, she will be replaced. Four other staff members of the inquiry have already left since June.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told reporters Tuesday that the government will decide whether to replace Poitras after consulting with the independent commission, but stressed that it is important to have a strong Métis "lens" on the commission.

Jonathan said she hopes the commission will travel to remote and northern communities in Saskatchewan and engage with local elders and community members to find the best way forward. 

"One thing that I am very concerned about is families being put against families, and that should never happen. I don't want any more trauma occurring with the families," Jonathan said. 

FSIN First Vice-Chief Kimberly Jonathan said she supports Poitras's decision to resign.

In her letter, Poitras said stories of violence and suicide are not the whole picture of who Indigenous people are, and that there is a "whole resiliency piece" that no one is talking about.

"I believe part of the solution is to draw on our strengths and resiliency as Indigenous people, because if all we ever talk about is 'the Indian problem,' then we'll only ever be 'the Indian problem,'" she said.

Jonathan said she supports Poitras's decision. 

Earlier this month, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson called for the chief commission of the inquiry, Marion Buller,  to resign.

At a press conference last week, Buller said she would not.

Poitras should be replaced: Bear 

While Jonathan said she wants a reset and that simply replacing Poitras "isn't the answer," another FSIN vice-chief, Heather Bear, said replacing the departed commissioner should be a top priority.

"I think it's important we start a new conversation and appointing a new commissioner should be the first order of business," Bear said.

While she said the inquiry is "off to a shaky start," she added the work is too important to be derailed by the recent string of resignations.

"We can't please everyone — we know that. We try our best and I'm hoping that we don't lose sight that we fought for this inquiry for decades and it cannot fail," she said.

Inquiry officials will visit Saskatchewan next month, with an official hearing to be held on Oct. 23 in Saskatoon. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Charles Hamilton is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.

With files from Kathleen Harris

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