Thunder Bay

Missing and murdered indigenous women: 5 things an inquiry should consider

The sister of an Ontario First Nations woman who was killed in 1994 says the Liberals are "rushing" families into consultations on a national public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

Critics suggest how Liberals can improve process as cross-country consultations begin

Advocates and experts weigh in with advice for Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould and Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett, as consultations begin on the inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The sister of an Ontario First Nations woman who was killed in 1994 says the Liberals are "rushing" families into consultations on a national public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

Sonya Cywink from Whitefish River First Nation was slain just outside of London, Ont. Her killer has never been found.

Her sister, Mag Cywink, said she feels the government is moving too quickly with its cross-country tour of pre-inquiry consultations, beginning Wednesday in Thunder Bay, Ont.

"We've been dealing with this for 30-plus years, like, what's the hurry?" Cywink said. "I don't think they're very organized. I think they're rushing through things that for us are sensitive matters. It doesn't make a lot of sense to do that."

Cywink said she's worried family members who have not yet processed their grief will find themselves exposed in front of government ministers.

"They shouldn't be forcing us into a position where, unprepared, we have to perform. I don't want to perform when I go to these things," she said.

Minister of Status of Women Patty Hajdu said she is aware of the concerns being raised by family members and is working toward solving them.

"There's a saying that I used in my grassroots work: Not about us without us," Hajdu said. "From my perspective, that's something we can work on as a government."

CBC News spoke to several experts and compiled a list of five elements a national public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls should consider:

1. Independence from government

"While I'm delighted that ministers of the government are so engaged and supportive of the inquiry and the process, I am a little concerned that they would be so engaged in the pre-inquiry consultation," said Kim Stanton, the legal director of the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on truth commissions and public inquiries. 

"There will be many people in the indigenous community in particular who will see the Canadian government as complicit in the root causes of this tragedy [of missing and murdered indigenous women], so it's just deeply important that this inquiry be seen to be, and to actually be, an independent inquiry," she said.

2. Expert inquiry staff

The leadership of the inquiry, in terms of its commissioners and staff, will be key to its success, Stanton said.

"We are looking for people who are independent, have integrity that is just unimpeachable, who are courageous, who are strong personally, because this is going to be a very difficult inquiry to conduct emotionally and otherwise," she said.

3. Direct consultation with First Nations

There are plans to consult with indigenous organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations and the Native Women's Association of Canada, but Judith Sayers, a professor in the University of Victoria's law department, believes First Nations chiefs and councils should also have a say.

"Part of what I think the inquiry is asking is why are so many women going missing or getting murdered, and some of those root causes start in the First Nation community on the reserve," said Judith Sayers. "There's not enough housing, there's no daycare … and so some of those issues need to come from the chief and council and the communities themselves."

4. Immediate action

Sayers said people are hungry for action on safety concerns of indigenous women and girls and an inquiry shouldn't stand in the way of immediate change.

"As they're going through the inquiry, the commissioners should be able to make recommendations for immediate action," Sayers said. "Instead of making a report with all these recommendations that come out at the end, hopefully that will be one of the things that can happen throughout the inquiry.

5. Police accountability

Many family members have specific questions for police, said Audrey Huntley, co-founder of the grassroots advocacy group No More Silence, but she worries that answers won't be delivered through the inquiry.

"The demand is for those [police] files to be made transparent, to have police at the table to share what they have or have not done on their loved ones' disappearance or murder, and I don't see that happening," Huntley said.