'What is going on?': Family members want to know what's happening to MMIWG inquiry

Following the sudden resignation of Marilyn Poitras as commissioner of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls on Tuesday, families are struggling to keep up with what they fear may be a breakdown within the commission.

Resignations of Marilyn Poitras, several staff members have families demanding answers

MMIWG inquiry commissioners (left-right) Brian Eyolfson, Marilyn Poitras, Marion Buller (chief commissioner), Michele Audette and Qajaq Robinson, along with lead legal counsel Susan Vella, speak with reporters in Ottawa on Feb. 7. Poitras resigned from the inquiry commission on Tuesday. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Following the sudden resignation of Marilyn Poitras as commissioner of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) on Tuesday, families are struggling to keep up with what they fear may be a breakdown of the commission.

The departure of Poitras means there are currently just four commissioners with the independent national inquiry, which is tasked with examining the systemic causes of violence directed against Indigenous women and girls across Canada and find some way to memorialize the missing and murdered victims, which some say could number as high as 4,000.

The inquiry was launched in 2016 and held its first round of public hearings in Whitehorse in May. More hearings are scheduled for this fall in communities across the country.

In addition to Poitras's resignation as an appointed commissioner, five commission members have resigned since February, including Michele Moreau, whose resignation as executive director was announced June 30.

The other employees who resigned in June were Chantale Courcy, who was director of operations; Sue Montgomery, who was director of communications; and Tanya Kappo, who was manager of community relations. Michael Hutchinson was let go as communications director in February.

Rumours of turmoil, disorganization and poor communication within the inquiry have been circulating and has British Columbia-based MMIWG activist Lorelei Williams concerned.

"I'm not confident at all in the inquiry," she said.

"What is going on? I don't understand why they're not coming out with the truth. I want to hear that and know the truth. If it's not going well we need to know, because then it has to be stopped."

Williams lost her aunt, who went missing in Vancouver in the 1970s, as well as her cousin who was murdered by B.C. pig farmer Robert Pickton.

She attended the inquiry's public hearings in Whitehorse held just weeks ago, where she said she felt her testimony was taken seriously.

"In Whitehorse, I saw with my own eyes what was going on. I thought everything was OK. The majority of my questions I had were answered in Whitehorse. I got access to the commissioners and I made connections," she said.

Her confidence in the inquiry began to waver shortly afterward however, and she was blindsided with the news that Poitras was stepping down.

"I'm confused…. It doesn't look good. Something's happening in there [the commission] but they're just not saying it," Williams said.

"When they first announced this inquiry, I had so much faith, so much hope, and I've been losing it."

Lorelei Williams speaks at the MMIWG inquiry's public hearings in Whitehorse. (Submitted by Lorelei Williams)

Eva Potts, from Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation in Alberta, is grieving the disappearance of her sister, Misty Potts, who went missing in March 2015.

Potts said from the start, she thought the inquiry seemed unorganized.

"It seemed like it was being done just to make it seem like they [government] were doing something," said Potts.

"Now I see it crumbling. It's sad. So what are they saying about First Nations women? It's too messy for them to try? I don't know."

But Potts said she still has faith in the inquiry.

"What do we need to do to make sure it doesn't fall apart? Do we need to do some marches again? We need to get on their case again."

Eva Potts, left, with her sister Misty. Misty Potts was 37 years old when she went missing in March 2015. (Submitted by by Eva Potts)

The grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, Sheila North Wilson, agrees that families and community members need to be front and centre in the inquiry. She is also calling for the resignation of lead commissioner Marion Buller.

"I think there's a lot of internal turmoil that needs to be addressed and there's clearly a lack of leadership that is hindering the process, and grassroots people themselves were not consulted," said North Wilson.

"What I'm hearing from families is a level of frustration and wanting to boycott it [the inquiry]. But I am encouraging families to stick with it and to have patience and to give it the benefit of the doubt. But it's become clear that it's harder to do that, and we need to signal a restart to these families that are concerned to show that we are listening and we are paying attention to what their needs are and they need to be respected in this process."

North Wilson believes that in addition to Buller stepping down, the inquiry's terms of reference need to be changed in order for it to be successful.

'We want the commission to be able to explain their plan,' says the Minister of Indigenous Affairs. 7:11

Inquiry is stable, says minister

A coalition of families from across Canada addressed a letter to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett on Tuesday asking for the resignation of each of the commissioners and the lead commission counsel.

They cited a re-traumatization of communities and loved ones of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls through "misguided processes" undertaken by the inquiry.

But Bennett said during a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday that she is confident the inquiry can proceed, despite the latest resignation of a commissioner.

"I met with the commission yesterday to discuss their plan to make it work in light of the resignation. I can assure families the commissioners continue to be passionate about their work and are dedicated to finding solutions to end the violence against Indigenous women and girls," said Bennett.

"In terms of personnel leaving — it's important for people to understand that this trauma-approached work is very intense, family pressure is intense, but a lot of people have reassured me that the changes in this kind of work is often seen."

Bennett said communication is one of the inquiry's main issues that needs to be sorted out, but added that the government is limited on how it can intervene.

"The commission is totally independent. It's their decision to make in terms of finding processes that will help them achieve their mandate," she said.

Following the resignation of Poitras, the Ontario Women's Native Association pulled its support of the inquiry.

"We no longer have faith that this inquiry will meet its mandate and work responsibly with families and communities," ONWA president Dawn Harvard said in a statement Tuesday.

The Native Women's Association of Canada has called for a restructuring of the inquiry.

"This process has lost its focus on those who are impacted by the loss of loved ones and on honouring the lives of Indigenous women," stated association president Francyne D. Joe.

About the Author

Brandi Morin, Métis, born and raised in Alberta, possesses a passion for telling Indigenous stories. Based outside Edmonton, Morin has lent her talents to several news organizations, including Indian Country Today Media Network and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network National News. She is now hard at work striving to tell the stories of Canada's Indigenous peoples to a broader audience.