Saskatoon law professor Marilyn Poitras to serve on MMIW inquiry

A University of Saskatchewan law professor is acting as a commissioner on Canada's inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

Federal government officially launches inquiry, names 5-member commission

A University of Saskatchewan law professor is acting as a commissioner in Canada's inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

Marilyn Poitras is an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Law. She began her career as a native court worker and eventually received a masters of law degree from Harvard University. She has focused on constitutional/aboriginal law, and has placed a special focus on legal education initiatives.

Meanwhile, chief commissioner Marion Buller also has connections to Saskatchewan. While Buller is a judge in British Columbia and lives in Port Coquitlam, she maintains band membership with the Mistawasis First Nation.

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 other commissioners are:

  • Michèle Audette, leading women's First Nations advocate, Innu francophone and former president of the Native Women's Association of Canada.
  • Qajaq Robinson, Ottawa-based lawyer specializing in Aboriginal issues and land and treaty claims, born in Nunavut.
  • Brian Eyolfson, First Nations and human rights lawyer, former vice-chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

The government also announced $16.17 million over four years to create family information liaison units in each province and territory and to increase funding for culturally appropriate victims' services.

The inquiry will begin Sept. 1 and run until Dec. 31, 2018, at a cost estimated at $53.8 million.

It 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.

It will also review various federal and provincial laws, but will not find criminal liability.

Certain matters can be referred to police.

Hundreds of families and friends who have lost a loved one will have an eye on Ottawa this morning as the federal government unveils the details of the inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, but some have already dampened their expectations.

"I think it will be a gong show again, truthfully," said Angel Wolfe, whose mother Brenda was killed by British Columbia pig farmer Robert Pickton between 1999 and 2002. "But I will always have hope."

According to a draft document obtained by CBC, the inquiry will largely focus on violence prevention.

It says commissioners will be given the broad mandate to identify systemic causes of violence and make recommendations to help end violence against Indigenous women and girls.

University of Saskatchewan professor Marilyn Poitras. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

The draft also directs commissioners not to interfere with ongoing criminal investigations and discourages them from recommending civil or criminal liability of a person or organization.

It also says five commissioners, including a chief commissioner, will be named, but the document doesn't identify them.

Details about when the inquiry will start and how long it will take are still under wraps.

'I don't have too much more faith'

The inquiry was one of Justin Trudeau's high-profile election promises, but some fear it will be toothless.

Wolfe, 23, said she wants to believe the inquiry will make a difference, but she's already been let down by the 2012 inquiry into the Pickton case.

"It really does matter to me. I guess in my opinion I don't have too much more faith," she said.

It's a sentiment her adoptive mother Bridget Perrier shares.

For me justice would be changing the laws a bit, making it a hate crime if you kill an Indigenous woman.- Bridget Perrier

"This shouldn't be another Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That was dragged on for years. I think what families really want is justice. And we haven't been given justice. We've been given a lot of resolutions and recommendations," she said.

Perrier said police accountability is crucial to understanding why Indigenous women disappear and die. 

"For me justice would be changing the laws a bit, making it a hate crime if you kill an Indigenous woman ... I want to see harsher sentences for people who murder our women and girls," Perrier said.

Root causes need examining

Other families and advocates expressed disappointment the draft document makes no specific mention of police investigations, an issue that came up at all 17 pre-inquiry consultations held earlier this year.

While the draft doesn't explicitly state the need to examine the role of police, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has said a national inquiry would review "the uneven application of justice," including police conduct.

On Tuesday, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told CBC's Power & Politics she doesn't want the inquiry to release a report that "would sit on a shelf."

"We need to get at the root causes of why this situation exists in the first place, whether that be poverty, marginalization, discrimination and address those in a substantive way," she said.

Wilson-Raybould wouldn't go as far as saying the government will accept any and all of the commission's recommendations.

The Liberal Party platform pegged the cost of a full national public inquiry at $40 million over two years.

A 2015 United Nations report found that young First Nations, Métis and Inuit women were five times more likely to die under violent circumstances than their non-Aboriginal counterparts.

In 2014, the RCMP found nearly 1,200 documented cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls between 1980 and 2012, a number Mounties said exceeded previous estimates.

With files from CBC's Catherine Cullen