MMIWG inquiry staff's top priority is to protect commissioners from criticism: leaked email

Shortly after she was hired, the new executive director for the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls sent an email to all staff that one former staffers describes as "unnerving."

Inquiry has 'become about self-image and protecting the commissioners,' source says

Debbie Reid, executive director of the national Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, sent staff an email that one former staffer describes as 'unnerving.' (Debbie Reid/LinkedIn)

Shortly after she was hired, the executive director for the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), sent an email to all staff telling them their top priority was to protect the commissioners from "criticism or surprises."

Debbie Reid sent the email on Oct. 12, a little over a week after she was named to the position. Reid made it clear she was brought in to create order within the inquiry and told staff, "I don't mince words."

The inquiry has lost at least 20 people since January to firings, layoffs and resignations. Since October, Reid's first two months on the job, the inquiry lost seven people to firings and resignations. 

Three fired staffers recently went public with criticism of the inquiry, saying they faced a toxic, high-pressure work environment with long hours and little support. The inquiry currently lacks a human resources unit. 

In the email, Reid said her job was to "protect" the commissioners and it was something all staff should also prioritize.

"All staff are here to work to support four people," said the email, obtained by CBC News from a source inside the inquiry.

"All focus of staff must be to ensure that our commissioners are not exposed to criticism or surprises and that they are fully confident that we have their backs."

'Dysfunctional relationships'

Reid's appointment followed the high-profile resignations this summer of inquiry commissioner Marilyn Poitras and executive director Michèle Moreau.

Reid said one her first jobs was to "immediately" deal with the inquiry's internal culture which had "been tagged with 'dysfunctional' relationships."

She said her direct style "both helped me and more times than not got me in trouble" throughout her career. 

"Some people see me as aggressive and 'in your face,'" said Reid in the email. 

"I want to apologize in advance… if at any time my communication style upsets you. I can get very passionate on the issues that impact Indigenous people (never mind our women)."

Reid said "disrespectful emails, gossiping, blaming of others, jockeying for position of importance or throwing other teams or people 'under the bus,'" would result in disciplinary action.

"It's what the commissioners have tasked me to do," said Reid, in the email.

"In the coming weeks, those changes will continue to be shared with you… I know this is a tough email to get from me. However, we do not have the time to get to know each other."  

Inquiry about 'self-image'

An internal inquiry source, who requested anonymity, said staff face a skewed focus. 

"I thought the national inquiry was created to honour and investigate MMIWG," said the source.

"I thought it was going to be a safe space for families and survivors? Instead, it's become about self-image and protecting the commissioners."

CBC News has spoken to several current staff members about problems inside the inquiry.

A portion of a leaked email from MMIWG executive director Debbie Reid. (CBC)

CBC News emailed the inquiry's media relations officers and Reid requesting comment. Reid initially responded to the email, but did not answer a follow-up message requesting an interview.

Morene Gabriel, who was fired in October from her job as community relations manager for Manitoba and Saskatchewan, said she remembered the email.

"It was quite unnerving; it didn't make any sense in terms of the mandate of the national inquiry," said Gabriel, whose sister Eileen Mary Houle, 36, was killed in 2001 in Ebb and Flow First Nation.

"It didn't have any direction, only that she was coming in to protect the commissioners."

Inquiry needs more time

Rachel Willan, 42, a survivor of violence who testified during the inquiry hearings in Winnipeg, said it bothers her to hear fired staff and the media "trashing" the inquiry.

"We are only human and we are flawed humans," said Willan, who spent decades struggling on the streets and now helps at-risk youth. Like many who have testified, Willan has been in touch with the commissioners and senior staff. 

"Nobody has any business shaming the people working in the inquiry." 

Willan said it's clear the commissioners and senior officials are under immense time pressure to finish the inquiry's work by December 2018. She said the federal government needs to give the inquiry its requested time extension.

"They are under severe pressure," said Willan. "Put an extension for the inquiry. Give the women and all the people that are working the opportunity to breathe."


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him

With files from Jillian Taylor