Marion Buller, head of MMIW inquiry, says 'don't expect to hear from us right away'

The chief commissioner of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada says it could be a while before the panel will have much to reveal about its work.

Families of victims say lack of communication is a source of mounting frustration

Marion Buller, British Columbia's first female First Nations judge, is the MMIW inquiry's chief commissioner. (Christer Waara/CBC)

The chief commissioner of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada says it could be a while before the panel will have much to reveal about its work.

"We're going to go carefully and respectfully, so don't expect to hear from us right away," Marion Buller told CBC Power & Politics host Rosemary Barton on the eve of the inquiry's start.

Next week the commission will start meeting to plan the inquiry's process and get to know each other. Buller said the first time the five met in person was at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., for the inquiry's official launch in early August.

The commission officially starts Thursday and runs until Dec. 31, 2018, at an estimated cost of $53.8 million, higher than the $40 million earmarked in the budget.

'Satisfied' with terms of reference 

"The good thing about the inquiry — it isn't just me. There are four other commissioners. It's going to be a team effort ... we have a lot of groundwork together," Buller said.

The murdered and missing Indigenous women inquiry is headed by five commissioners, from left to right: Buller, Qajaq Robinson, Marilyn Poitras, Michele Audette and Brian Eyolfson. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

But she said it "may be some time before the hearings actually start."  

"I just hope the public expectation is somewhat qualified by the fact that tomorrow we're starting at square one, we're going to develop our own processes and it's going to take some time."

Frustrated families

But advocates and families who've lost loved ones say they've been frustrated by the lack of information from the newly appointed commission. They've been waiting to hear what the inquiry will look like and what its first steps will be.

Mag Cywink, whose sister Sonya Cywink was killed in London, Ont., in 1994, said she understands the commission has to deal with staffing, planning and other logistics, but the lack of regular updates has added to mounting frustration and confusion.

Nahanni Fontaine, the MLA for St. Johns riding in Manitoba, says the government should be more open about the process leading up to the MMIW inquiry. (CBC)

"I'm sure that it's going to take time, but put something out there so we [families] at least know," she said.

Manitoba New Democrat MLA Nahanni Fontaine said she's been trying her best to answer questions and concerns from families in Manitoba, but it's been a difficult job without information.

"Not a good start. They really should be sending out some updates to families across the country," she said.

Vancouver headquarters

The commission has so far made one hire, a public relations contractor.

Malcolm Bernard of Ottawa-based Interplay Media said more details will emerge in the coming weeks. 

He did confirm the commission's headquarters will be located in Vancouver and that more staff will be hired soon, including an executive director and lead counsel.

"There'll be no formal business for the next couple of days, it's literally getting infrastructure in place so that they can take phone calls from people like families."

The panel's final report will be highly anticipated. The families have been demanding an inquiry for years. With that in mind, Buller said she's "not daunted, but careful."

The commission will examine the factors driving a systemic, high rate of violence against Indigenous women and girls, and the role of various institutions, including police forces, governments and coroners' offices.

Elder Claudette Commanda passes a birch bark basket containing stories of victims and families and cultural items to Judge Marion Buller at the formal announcement of the MMIW inquiry. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Buller, British Columbia's first female First Nations judge, said the inquiry will look at those underlying issues through traditional hearings, collecting statements and sifting through a mountain of research, including existing reports, studies and past inquiry findings.

"I think we're ready to move forward with a new relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples across Canada," she said.

The commission has the authority to summon witnesses, compel documents and can refer matters to police. However it can't find anyone criminally liable, a sticking point with some critics.

Buller said she's "satisfied" with the terms of reference.

Ball ends in government's court

"The other terms of reference do not require us to reinvestigate closed cases. We are not empowered to have our own separate police investigators," she said.

Buller said she, and the other commissioners, know it'll be a painstaking two years but she'll rely on the "strength and courage" of family members of the missing and murdered Indigenous women to "move forward."

Joan Friesen, whose family member Donna Navvaq Kusugak died in 2003, wipes her eyes during the announcement of the inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

"It's going to be difficult and I accept that," she said.

Buller said it's the commission's responsibility to propose concrete and realistic recommendations, "after that it's up to the government and there's really nothing we can do to control their decisions."

Before she was appointed to the provincial court bench, Buller worked as a civil and criminal lawyer. She also led an initiative to open the province's first First Nations court, taking a restorative justice approach to sentencing on criminal and family court matters.

The commission's interim report is due before Nov. 1, 2017, and a final report with their expectations a year later.

With files from Meera Bains, Waqas Chughtai