Families across northern Ontario still waiting to testify before MMIWG inquiry

More than 80 families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in northern and northwestern Ontario have still not testified before the national inquiry created to hear their stories and chart a new path to ending the crisis.

Inquiry says it's still working on request for mandate extension

Women drummers open the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls hearings in Thunder Bay on Dec. 4, 2017. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

More than 80 families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in northern and northwestern Ontario have still not testified before the national inquiry created to hear their stories and chart a new path to ending the crisis.

The inquiry has so far held 11 hearings across the country and four more are scheduled into April. Only one hearing has been held in Ontario so far.

The inquiry's current mandate ends this coming December. Family members and leaders from northern Ontario worry that unless the inquiry gets its desired time extension, it will fail to capture the full spectrum of stories of the missing and murdered.

While the inquiry commissioners have yet to file a formal request for the extension, they met with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett for about an hour in Ottawa Thursday.

"We are working diligently on an extension request," the inquiry said in a statement.

"The additional time will allow those who wish to share their truths and recommendations for change with the commissioners or statement gatherers to do so."

Meetings held in Ottawa

The four commissioners also recently met with First Nations leaders and stakeholders.They met with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North on Wednesday and Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy (NAN) Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum on Thursday.

The inquiry has been hobbled by about two dozen resignations, firings and layoffs since it began its work. One commissioner quit last summer and two executive directors have so far left their posts.

Commissioners of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Brian Eyolfson, left to right, Marion Buller, Michelle Audette, and Qajaq Robinson appear as witnesses at a House of Commons committee last September. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Assembly of First Nations chiefs passed a resolution last December calling on the inquiry's Chief Commissioner Marion Buller to resign.

Priscilla Simard, a member of the Treaty 3 Women's Council, said only five of 40 families from northwestern Ontario covered by the treaty area managed to make a hearing held in Thunder Bay this past December — the only hearing held so far in the province.

"We really need to express our disappointment on how the commission has failed to live up to its word," said Simard.

Still waiting for response

Simard said the Treaty 3 Grand Council leadership, which represents 28 Anishinaabe First Nations, asked inquiry Commissioner Brian Eyolfson during a chiefs assembly last October to hold hearings in the region.

Simard said the leadership has still not heard back from the inquiry on the request.

"He stood there and said, 'I am going to do everything in my power to bring it here,'" said Simard.

Her husband is the uncle of Verna Simard, who died in a fall from the sixth floor window of Vancouver's Regent Hotel under suspicious circumstances on Sept. 16, 2011.

"If we make an invitation and you say 'Yes, I am coming' and all of a sudden we don't hear from you no more, what's going on with that?" said Priscilla Simard, who provided testimony during a private hearing in Thunder Bay.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum. (Nishnawbe Aski Nation)

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum also said the inquiry needs to hold more hearings in northern Ontario. Achneepineskum said only one of about 48 families from her region managed to attend the Thunder Bay hearings.

Families reluctant to travel to Thunder Bay 

She said many families didn't want to go into a city that has already caused so much pain to the area's First Nations community and has a record of racist attacks.

"That is why it's very important that an extension is granted," said Achneepineskum, in a telephone interview shortly after a two-hour meeting with the commissioners.

"Two [new hearings] would be my ideal request. One on the east side of NAN and one on the west side, to be able to accommodate our families," said Achneepineskum.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario.

Achneepineskum said that during the meeting she told the commissioners they should share the leadership of the inquiry instead of having just one chair. She also expressed her concern that the inquiry was silent following the verdict by a Winnipeg jury in February that found Raymond Cormier not guilty in the killing of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine.

"I think it would have made a lot of difference if the commissioners had been there to provide a public statement, even saying that they support the family," she said.

"That is the mandate of the commission."

Upcoming hearings

The inquiry is scheduled to hold hearings in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., Montreal and Thompson, Man., this month. A hearing is also scheduled for Vancouver in April.

The inquiry said it has so far heard from 728 family members and survivors and 700 more are registered to testify.

About the Author

Jorge Barrera

Reporter

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 jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.