MMIW commission won't hear testimony from families until spring 2017

Three months after the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women officially began, advocates worry that families have been "left in the dark" about when they might be expected to testify and are feeling disengaged from the process that is supposed to give them a voice.

Families 'in the dark' 3 months after inquiry into missing and murdered women launched, advocate says

This painting by artist Dave Fadden, called Scream of the Silenced, is a mosaic of tiny intricate designs, representing the hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Three months after the official launch of the long-awaited inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, a spokesman says the commissioners won't start hearing formal testimony from the families until the spring of 2017. 

"It is important that we take the time to put necessary support systems in place, such as hiring staff and creating outreach plans, before formally beginning the inquiry process this spring," said Michael Hutchinson, the commission's recently appointed director of communications, in an email to CBC News.

The independent inquiry led by five commissioners formally began on Sept. 1. The federal government directed the commission to find out why hundreds of First Nations, Métis and Inuit women have disappeared or been murdered in Canada.

Its mandate includes making recommendations on how to remove systemic causes of violence and increase safety for Indigenous women and girls, as well as honouring those who have been killed or gone missing. The commission's final report is due Nov. 1, 2018.

But Indigenous women's advocates, initially relieved that their repeated calls for an inquiry had finally been heeded, say the families of missing and murdered women and girls have been "left in the dark" for the last three months. 

From left, commissioners Marion Buller, Qajaq Robinson, Marilyn Poitras, Michele Audette and Brian Eyolfson listen during the launch of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on Sept. 1. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

"It's very emotional for these families to figure out what's going on," said Francyne Joe, interim president of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC). "There's been very, very limited movement forward."

The testimony of survivors and families will be central to the inquiry's work. But families haven't been able to prepare themselves for the difficult task of telling their stories, Joe said, because they don't know whether it will be a matter of weeks or months before they are called to testify. 

Joe, who is from British Columbia, said an Indigenous women's advocate in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has asked her to come and meet with families who are upset to the point that they're talking about not taking part in the inquiry at all.

For years, families who have lost women and girls they love have come to NWAC for help, Joe said, and she hopes she'll be able to help alleviate their concerns.

"I think as each week passes by, they're feeling more and more disengaged," she said. "This needs to be a transparent process." 

"We want to work with the commissioners. We want to make sure that this succeeds."

Commission understands anxiety

After three months, the MMIW commission still doesn't have a website for families wanting to find out more information on how to participate in the inquiry.

A government of Canada website provides some basic information and lists a toll-free crisis line people can call if they are dealing with trauma associated with missing and murdered Indigenous women. That website also states that the inquiry "is independent from the federal government" and that "contact information for the inquiry will be posted as soon as it is available."

An MMIW inquiry website and "social channels" will be ready "within the next several weeks," Hutchinson said. 

Francyne Joe, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, says families of missing and murdered Indigenous women want the commission to let them know 'what's going on, when is it going on, what do I need to do?' (Native Women's Association of Canada )

Since September, the commission has been building its infrastructure and hiring staff, as well as "designing a trauma informed process to receive the statements and testimonies of the survivors and families," a separate statement attributed to the inquiry commissioners said. "In addition, the commission is working toward the inclusion of Indigenous protocols and practices within its hearing process."

Joe understands that it takes time to hire staff, including Indigenous counsellors and people to manage the information that will be collected throughout the inquiry. But Indigenous organizations were led to believe that consultations with families would start in January, she said, and she wishes they had been provided with "an honest timeline" from the beginning that they, in turn, could share with affected families.

"[It would have] lessened the amount of stress," Joe said. "Families would feel more optimistic as to how things are going at this point."   

The national organization representing Inuit women, Pauktuutit, also expressed concern in October about a lack of information coming from the MMIW inquiry.

Commissioners have since started holding biweekly conference calls with Pauktuutit, NWAC and other Indigenous organizations to try to improve communication. 

"We feel a bit better about being informed," Rebecca Kudloo, president of Pauktuutit, told CBC.   

'We want this inquiry to be meaningful for Inuit, especially for the families,' says Rebecca Kudloo, president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada. (Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada)

"We have promised the families of the murdered and missing that Pauktuutit will keep them updated as to what will happen with the inquiry," she said. "We're trying our very best." 

The commissioners recognize people's frustration, but insist the time they're taking to get things done is necessary.   

"The commission understands that the survivors and families are anxious to have an opportunity to be heard," according to its statement. "Towards that end, the commission is committed to designing a process which will respect the survivors, families, and all those who need to be heard and will promote reconciliation and healing across the country."

Joe and Kudloo agree it's critical the commission has culturally appropriate emotional support in place before, during and after those meetings. 

"We don't want the commission coming in, opening wounds and leaving," said Kudloo.

But Joe said she believes it's possible "to move forward faster, but still effectively."

"This isn't the first time the government has had an inquiry or a commission," she said. "I mean, we want to make sure that the right supports are in place. But they knew this [before]." 


Nicole Ireland is a reporter with The Canadian Press

With files from Angela Hill, CBC North