Missing and murdered inquiry commissioners to review police conduct and 'investigate the investigations'

The chief commissioner of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls says she has assembled a team of forensic investigators who are reviewing the activity of some Canadian police forces.

Inquiry will refer individual case files to the 'appropriate authorities' if it believes further action needed

Commissioners of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Marion Buller and Michelle Audette, appear as witnesses at a House of Commons committee on Parliament Hill. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The chief commissioner of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls says she has assembled a team of forensic investigators who are reviewing the activity of some Canadian police forces.

"We have always intended to investigate policing, and I think the best way of describing it succinctly is we intend to investigate the investigations," said Marion Buller, a former B.C. judge, during her appearance before the House of Commons Indigenous affairs committee.

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The inquiry has already sought files from the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police and the Thunder Bay Police Service, she said. "They have been very co-operative, and forthcoming about their files," she replied to a question from Ontario Liberal MP Gary Anandasangaree.

Buller said the forensic team — which is comprised of Crown attorneys, defense lawyers and other experts — is looking to document common tactics used by police during investigations and the conduct used during interviews with witnesses to crime.

Some activists fear the inquiry's terms of reference are too narrow and do not allow commissioners to examine the conduct of police forces, some of which have been accused of botching investigations into missing and murdered Indigenous women. There have also been claims of systemic racism in some police forces.

In a progress report filed with the Commons committee Thursday, the commissioners said reviewing individual files is very much part of its work.

"If we have concerns about the way a case was handled, we will make recommendations to the appropriate authorities for further action," the report said. "Our forensic document committee — made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous experts — will review select files and will identify and propose solutions to systemic problems and promote practices to increase the safety and security of Indigenous women and girls."

Buller says the inquiry will review the conduct of some police. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Despite assurances police forces would not escape the inquiry's scrutiny, the commissioners said families should not expect public hearings to be conducted like a court of law.

"We do not mark exhibits or follow other courtroom-like procedures while the family member or survivor is talking," the report said.

The inquiry has long warned family members not to expect a full re-investigation of individual files, or for the inquiry to assign blame for a failed investigation, prosecution, or search and rescue. It does not have the right to interfere in active police investigations.

It can, however, look at files to assess the competency of a police response, the investigation process and the behaviour of Crown attorneys. While that might seem like a fine distinction, the inquiry is more concerned about identifying common pitfalls of Canadian policing rather than assign blame to individual officers for the outcome of a particular case.

There will also be so-called "institutional hearings" — meetings separate from those with families — where commissioners will be able to quiz police services and child welfare agencies, among other groups, about their conduct. Five such meetings will be held in the new year.

Call for patience

The inquiry has been plagued by frequent staffing changes — including the departure of a commissioner — and delays.

Only one family hearing has been held since the inquiry was formally launched in August 2016. Many family members have asked the commissioners to request an extension, more money, or a full restart.

Buller placed at least some of the blame on the requirement that the inquiry work within the confines of the federal bureaucracy.

The Privy Council Office, the government department that serves the Prime Minister's Office, has so far directed much of the inquiry's conduct, Buller said.

"Because we're bound by government policies and procedures for spending, for information technology, information management, human resources, we are constrained," she said.

"The policies and procedures, I suppose work very well in government that runs on a day-to-day, year-to-year basis, but those same policies and procedures … do not work well in a setting that we're in, where we have a limited time period in order to do our work."

She said taking four to six months for a minister's office to hire a staff member may work fine for them, but six months is 20 per cent of "our total lifetime."

Buller said, at this point, the inquiry is close to a full complement of staff, and it is hiring people countrywide almost daily.

Commissioners Brian Eyolfson, left to right, Marion Buller, Michelle Audette and Qajaq Robinson appear as witnesses at a House of Commons committee. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Qajaq Robinson, one of the commissioners with ties to the North, said commissioners never believed the inquiry would run smoothly, and she called for patience.

"This was never going to be easy," she said. "We're talking about hundreds of years of this dynamic ... it can't go smoothly, there is no way to say this will go smoothly, we're not examining buildings, we're examining lives, we're examining the systemic causes of this tragedy."

At the end of the fiscal year, March 2018, Buller said, the inquiry will have spent nearly 75 per cent of its $53-million budget.

An interim report, and much of the inquiry's travel, will be done by that point. The inquiry is expected to finish by the end of 2018, but Buller has signalled she could request an extension and a financial infusion.

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John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

J.P. Tasker is a senior writer in the CBC's parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.