MMIWG inquiry referrals are an 'opportunity' for change, says former commissioner

A former commissioner from the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is urging institutions that received referral letters from the inquiry to reach out to grassroots organizations and Indigenous groups to figure out how to take action. 

Guidance on how to make that happen is in the report, says Qajaq Robinson

Commissioners Qajaq Robinson and Michele Audette prepare to hand the inquiry's final report to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a ceremony in Gatineau, Que., in June. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC )

A former commissioner from the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is urging institutions that received referral letters from the inquiry to reach out to grassroots organizations and Indigenous groups to figure out how to take action. 

Qajaq Robinson said the blueprints for how to respond to the referrals exists in the inquiry's final report as well as in the calls for justice. 

Before the inquiry wrapped in June, it sent out somewhere between 125 and 150 letters to institutions across the country instructing them to take action in response to allegations of misconduct and potential criminal offences that came to the attention of the commissioners. 

The letters went out across the country and a large portion, if not most, went to police agencies. 

CBC has spoken to several families and survivors who have expressed concern about how police are handling reviews triggered by the letters. 

Robinson said the referral letters provide these agencies and institutions with an opportunity to make positive change, if they choose to.

"They're an opportunity to look at the concerns, look at information, develop a process that further enhances individual confidence in their systems and their agencies," she said.

"Or it could serve to continue to build that distrust and that disconnect and strengthen that belief that agencies will take whatever means necessary to cover up what they're doing." 

Referrals based on testimony, subpoenaed documents

Under the inquiry's terms of reference it could not declare any person or individual institution legally at fault in specific cases but could refer matters back to those authorities if it came across information "that the Commissioners have reasonable grounds to believe related to misconduct." 

It could also send referrals to institutions about information the inquiry received that could be used in an investigation or prosecution under the Criminal Code.

Robinson said these letters were put together and sent out in the final months of the inquiry's mandate and were rooted in survivor and family testimonies, and also based on documentation the team acquired through subpoenas. 

She said the ultimate decision about when to send a referral letter was up to the commissioners and that decision was based on meeting a legal threshold of "reasonable grounds" to believe there was misconduct based on the information and evidence they could gather.

Juanita Desjarlais (centre) poses for a photo with her son and her mother after testifying at the MMIWG inquiry hearings in Richmond, B.C., in April 2018. Desjarlais is one of several people CBC has spoken to who has been approached by police about an inquiry referral letter. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

The letters may have gone out late in the inquiry's mandate but Robinson said this part of the commissioners' work was top of mind early on.

She said the interim report, released in November 2017, included a recommendation to establish a national task force that she hoped would, in part, play a role in responding to referrals. 

"In our interim report we called for the establishment of a national task force and I specifically spoke to how important that task force would be to have as a body we could send these referrals to, to have it centralized," she said.

Robinson said she was concerned early on about how the referrals would be processed and who would take them on. 

So the hope of a task force, she said, was that it could operate independently, and at a distance from the various bodies and institutions that received referrals, "so that those concerns about police investigating police for example, could be addressed."

'Justice and answers and accountability' needed 

Robinson said the agencies that received referral letters have the advice and information they need to move forward effectively in the final report. 

"We were very limited in terms of what we could say; we couldn't do these investigations ourselves," she said. 

"But we do outline in our final report how important it is to take a trauma-informed approach, to partner with grassroots and frontline organizations to work in a way that's culturally safe, and really to partner with community and Indigenous groups to do their jobs effectively." 

When it comes to police specifically, Robinson said the calls for justice speak directly to some of this process. The final report from the inquiry included 231 calls for justice, with 11 directed specifically at police. 

"Justice and answers and accountability is needed," said Robinson.

She said if the agencies are committed to rebuilding their relationship with Indigenous communities they will take heed of the concerns of their communities "and they will do this in a way that promotes justice, that promotes transparency."