For indigenous people, inquiries can fuel change — but only if governments act

Ottawa has announced the first stage of an impending inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women, and history has shown that public inquiries can bring about change. But only if governments choose to accept the recommendations.

A look at what some notable inquiries have — or haven't done — for indigenous peoples

A photograph of Terrie Ann Dauphinais is seen as participants hug after singing a song during a24-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 murdered in her Calgary home on April 29, 2002 and the case remains unsolved. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

After years of appeals from indigenous groups and victims' families, the federal government announced yesterday that the first phase of an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls will soon get underway.

For advocates, it's been a long struggle to get to this point, having spent the last decade trying to convince an unmoving Conservative government that the issue is something much more than just a criminal matter best left to police. 

Action was needed, the Conservatives said, not more study.

The new Liberal government, however, wants to move fast on this inquiry, possibly getting underway by summer. But how productive it will be is still up for debate.

"Murdered and missing indigenous women is a national tragedy that not only affects women but their families and their communities," said Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu in Monday's question period.

"And so we intend to move incredibly quickly, and with a great deal of respect."

The long-awaited inquiry may well take the form of a Royal commission, which according to the government's own definition, is an investigative body established by cabinet "in order to carry out full and impartial investigations of specific national problems."

And what a problem it is.

In 2014, the RCMP released a Canada-wide report on the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women. It indicated that nearly 1,200 aboriginal women were victims of homicide between 1980 and 2012.

Meanwhile, a 2015  UN report found that young aboriginal women in Canada are five times more likely to die under violent circumstances as compared to their non-aboriginal counterparts. It also reported that indigenous women report rates of violence 3.5 times higher than non-aboriginal women.

A long-awaited inquiry could be under way by summer, the federal government announces. How effective it will be is still up for debate, it seems. (CBC)

This new inquiry is expected to look at the root causes of these horrifying statistics, which the Native Women's Association of Canada says are born of poverty, marginalization and colonialism.

It could also potentially bring together all of the many agencies, organizations and individuals that deal with indigenous peoples to ask how this could have been allowed to happen for so long.

"There's not going to be one easy fix," said NWAC president Dawn Lavell Harvard recently, of the likely outcome. 

"But because this is a systemic problem involving child welfare, the police forces, corrections, all of those institutions need to be reviewed."

Canada has held over 450 official public inquiries since Confederation, covering everything from Asian immigration, banking, broadcasting and women's rights to the Somalia Affair, Canada's blood system and the Liberal sponsorship scandal.

In fact, Canada has held more such public inquiries than any other Commonwealth country, though few have dealt with issues that specifically affect indigenous peoples. At least not at the national level.

Notable inquiries

When it comes to their effectiveness, the easiest to gauge, perhaps, are the changes that have come from smaller provincial or territorial inquiries, most of which have dealt with the relationship between indigenous peoples and the justice system.

Manitoba's Aboriginal Justice Inquiry was launched in 1988 and was sparked by two flashpoints in the province's recent history: the death of J.J. Harper, a Cree leader shot dead by city police that same year, and the case of Helen Betty Osborne, whose murderers were brought to justice 16 years after she was killed in northern Manitoba.

The RCMP report said that, between 1980 and 2012, nearly 1,200 aboriginal women were victims of homicide (CBC)

For a year, this inquiry picked apart a justice system that, it said, had "failed Manitoba's aboriginal people on a massive scale" before releasing its final report in 1991. That report included nearly 300 recommendations, including calls for more indigenous lawyers, aboriginal-run child and family services agencies and the creation of a separate indigenous justice system.

Over two decades later, there are indeed more indigenous lawyers, even judges and separate aboriginal-run CFS agencies — but 70 per cent of inmates in Manitoba prisons are indigenous, up from half in 1991.

In Nova Scotia, the Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall, Jr., Prosecution has had lasting impact. 

For the Mi'kmaq, the inquiry into the Donald Marshall Jr. wrongful conviction led to widespread changes in Nova Scotia's justice system. (Albert Lee/The Canadian Press)

Marshall, a Mi'kmaq, was exonerated in 1990 by that inquiry, which determined systemic racism from police, judges, Crown lawyers, bureaucrats and even his original defence lawyers had contributed to his wrongful imprisonment. 

"The criminal justice system failed Donald Marshall Jr. at virtually every turn, from his arrest and wrongful conviction for murder in 1971, up to and even beyond his acquittal by the Court of Appeal in 1983," it was noted in the subsequent seven-volume report.

Since then, Nova Scotia's justice system employs Mi'kmaq translators, court workers and lawyers. Outside the court system, there's a partnership between Mi'kmaq leaders and provincial and federal officials called the "Tripartite Forum" that meets quarterly to hash out issues between the three.

In 2014, a review of changes since the Marshall inquiry was conducted, which found some key recommendations still hadn't been implemented.

Indigenous peoples "were still demanding the opportunity to have a justice system that was truly Mi'kmaq and wasn't tied to the Canadian justice system," says L. Jane McMillan, Canada Research Chair at Nova Scotia's St. Francis Xavier University and one of the people who conducted the review.

"They spoke very, very clearly about problems with policing and racism that they experienced through the courts system."

Despite these lingering problems, McMillan says Mi'kmaq leaders now had the mechanism to call a two-day conference of justice officials where these issues could be addressed. Something that wasn't possible before the Marshall inquiry.

Too big?

On the national stage, the largest and most ambitious indigenous peoples' inquiry to date was the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, established in 1991. 

Called in the wake of the Oka Crisis, the commission was meant to "help restore justice to the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada, and to propose practical solutions to stubborn problems."

Public hearings lasted 178 days, during which the commission visited over 90 aboriginal communities across Canada and heard testimony from over 2,000 people. Dozens of research reports were commissioned as well.

When it was released in 1996, a five-volume, 4,000 page final report offered 440 recommendations.

"A lot of academics use [the commission's release] as a baseline justification for advocacy," says McMillan.

"For treaty rights, for law, for social, for all of the major factors that are there. It's an incredible archive of information, but maybe it was just too big, too expansive"

Notable recommendations included a call for the creation of what would essentially be a third order of government: an aboriginal parliament; an independent tribunal to decide on land claims and more money to be spent to improve housing, health, education and employment.

In 2006, a decade after the RCAP final report was released, the Assembly of First Nations said the government had failed to implement any but a small fraction of these recommendations.

Some fear an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women runs the same risk, particularly if it's as wide-ranging as RCAP was.

"If everything [from RCAP] had been implemented, we wouldn't need a missing and murdered women's inquiry," McMillan admits. 

Though she ultimately believes this new inquiry is a necessary tool for exposing what caused hundreds of indigenous women and girls to go missing or be murdered over the past few decades.


Tim Fontaine is a Winnipeg-based writer who has worked for APTN National News and CBC Indigenous. You can follow him on Twitter: @anishinaboy.