Thunder Bay

Families of missing, murdered Indigenous women split over how inquiry should proceed

Many families of missing and murdered Indigenous women have pulled their support for the national inquiry but that sentiment is not being shared by all relatives of women who were killed or disappeared.

Some families say inquiry cannot fulfill mandate in current form, others call for patience, support

The inquiry of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has hit a number of snags since the process started. Some families are calling for a reset, while others say the inquiry needs support. (CBC)

A coalition of families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls have pulled their support for the national inquiry and are calling for a complete overhaul, but that sentiment is not shared by all relatives of those who were killed or disappeared.

The inquiry is tasked with examining the systemic causes of violence directed against Indigenous women and girls across Canada and to find a way to memorialize the missing and murdered victims, estimated to be in the thousands.

"All the direction should be coming from families first," said Maggie Cywink, who is from Whitefish River First Nation, just over 100 kilometres southwest of Sudbury, Ont., and one of the voices calling for a reset. "They should be putting families ahead of anyone and anything else."

Cywink's sister Sonya was found dead in Elgin County, Ont., in 1994. Ontario Provincial Police deemed Sonya's case a homicide but have yet to find her killer.

The coalition has sent open letters to Carolyn Bennett, Canada's Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, saying that a recent meeting with the inquiry's commissioners left them feeling that "they could no longer trust the inquiry to move forward with its mandate."

The letter stated family members had concerns that the "colonial construct doesn't work," and it won't "until we develop and rebuild the structure to include ceremony, languages and medicine." Cywink said the coalition had also recommended a number of commissioners to head the inquiry but government officials "did not even respond to that."

Maggie Cywink's sister Sonya was found dead in Elgin County, Ont., in 1994. Her killing has not been solved. (Facebook )

Numerous other recommendations put forward by families during the pre-inquiry hearings went unheeded, she added.

The coalition, that Cywink said also includes a number of grassroots organizations across Canada, called for Bennett to formally request the current commissioners' resignations and to restart the process.

"If the inquiry continues the way it is, it's just going to tumble down the hill," she continued. "You cannot fix something that's broken, and this inquiry is broken."

Those sentiments were echoed by the Ontario Native Women's Association (ONWA), a support and advocacy group for Indigenous women and girls, headquartered in Thunder Bay, Ont.

The organization also argued that Thunder Bay shouldn't be the first Ontario city to host hearings in the fall as a litany of issues have left the community "vulnerable."

The organization cited the conclusion of the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students, the subsequent deaths of Tammy Keeash and Josiah Begg, the Ontario civilian police oversight director's review of Thunder Bay police as well as other violence against Indigenous women.

The calls for a reset come at a time when several of the inquiry's staff members as well as one of its commissioners stepped down from their roles.

Not all families agree with a reset

Other families of Indigenous women and girls who have been killed or gone missing say, while the process to establish the long-awaited inquiry has not been perfect, the commissioners and the work they're trying to do deserve support.

On Thursday, the National Family Advisory Circle distributed a statement supporting the inquiry, while acknowledging "the difficult road that we journey on together."

The circle is made up of other family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women who, in a volunteer capacity, have been advising people in charge of the inquiry throughout the process.

"I'm not here to cause more tension between families, I never was one to do that," said Sharon Johnson, one of the circle members and a long-time advocate for the inquiry, adding that she had reservations about speaking out.

Sharon Johnson's sister Sandra was killed in Thunder Bay in 1992. Her case has never been solved. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Johnson's sister Sandra was found dead on a frozen, man-made floodway in Thunder Bay in 1992. Her case was deemed a homicide by Thunder Bay police but it has not been solved.

"It's not a good feeling because I know what it feels like to be fighting for something and to feel like you're not being heard," she said. "I don't like feeling like I'm a family member opposing another family member."

In its letter, the National Family Advisory Circle said that establishing a commission is a "difficult" and "monumental"  task, and that a number of the concerns being raised by families critical of the inquiry in its current form are "being rectified."

The letter added that this particular inquiry is "unique and distinct," and that, while a relationship between the the circle and commissioners and inquiry staff was "slow to grow," it has progressed where the two sides routinely speak.

"There's so much hurt out there already and there just doesn't need to be any more," Johnson said.

As for concerns about starting the process in Thunder Bay, Johnson said it's an opportunity to bring healing.

"Maybe that is a good place to start," she said. "Thunder Bay really needs something ... maybe, hopefully, something good will come out of it."

With files from Jody Porter and Marina von Stackelberg