Justice for families requires MMIW inquiry investigate role of police: Neil Macdonald

Though not singled out explicitly in the terms of reference for the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women, the role of police and the courts will need to be investigated thoroughly if victims' families are to find justice.

Indigenous affairs minister says it's up to commissioners to 'put teeth' into terms of reference

Joan Riggs of the Native Women’s Association of Canada says, above all, 'the families expect justice' from the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, which officially begins its work today. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

There is a legal term called "stipulating." It means all parties in a case agree on the truth of certain things, and agree not to niggle where those truths are concerned, and get on with the case at hand.


As the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women officially begins its two-year mission today, it might be helpful to stipulate the following:

Native people have been treated atrociously. Governments and police have dispossessed, brutalized and treated them like property, or something subhuman.

Governments have broken treaties, grabbed ever more land, forcibly displaced entire communities (at one point stranding a group of families up near the North Pole, in one of the most hostile places on Earth, to make a political statement), and have effectively kidnapped generations of children, handing them over to be raised by non-Native families or reprogrammed as Christians in obscene "residential schools."

As apartheid South Africa's odious former ambassador to Canada delighted in pointing out, there are Indigenous communities here that look an awful lot like segregated slums.

And Indigenous people comprise a grossly disproportionate share of Canada's prison population; unless you believe they are naturally more evil than the rest of us, that means they've been systematically criminalized, too.

All of this is documented fact, and shouldn't be controversial in the slightest.

But from the looks of the MMIW inquiry's terms of reference, it would appear the commissioners will spend a good deal of their time re-establishing all that.
From left, commissioners Marion Buller, Qajaq Robinson, Marilyn Poitras, Michele Audette and Brian Eyolfson officially begin their work today. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The commissioners are directed to identify "systemic causes of all forms of violence — including sexual violence — against Indigenous women and girls in Canada, including underlying social, economic, cultural, institutional and historical causes," and "institutional policies and practices," and, in a culturally sensitive and trauma-aware way, find some way to memorialize the victims.

Not that there is anything wrong with any of that. Unless it amounts to nothing more than two years' worth of group therapy.

We are talking about a brutal, nasty fact: there are hundreds of murdered and missing Indigenous women, and most of the missing are probably dead or murdered, and a good chunk of those files are unsolved.

In the words of Joan Riggs of the Native Women's Association of Canada, "The families expect justice."
Ceejai Julian, who lost two sisters, wipes her eye during the announcement of the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Which may mean reopening cases, or examining why they were closed unsolved.

So this is, to a large extent, a law enforcement matter, and a larger societal matter only in that police forces tend to enforce the status quo, which largely ignores Indigenous people. (It will be interesting to see how sustained the media coverage the commission receives will be, and whether viewers and readers will care.)

The fact is, the most vulnerable among us — it is hard to imagine anyone more vulnerable than a Native woman in urban Canada — do not seem to be a priority for our police and courts.

'Put teeth' into terms

And for some reason, diplomatic, no doubt, there is nothing in the terms of reference of the commission explicitly referring to investigating our police and courts.

The government insists the terms of reference don't explicitly mention police or the judiciary because they were written as broadly as possible precisely in order to ensure the commission can investigate law enforcement, and that further, the commission has the power of subpoena, and can compel co-operation or disclosure of files.
Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It is up to the commission itself, says Carolyn Bennett, the minister of Indigenous affairs, to "put teeth" into the terms of reference. The police will co-operate, in other words, if they are told to.

Well. We shall see.

But police aren't generally too keen on being investigated themselves — the blue wall and all that — and have in the past openly defied their own political masters, never mind federal inquiries.

Last year, for example, when Quebec's public security minister cried at a news conference about allegations that Sûreté du Quebec officers in Val-d'Or had been requiring oral sex from Indigenous women who appeared intoxicated, then dumping them outside town in freezing temperatures, the SQ police union denounced the minister. And the whole Val-d'Or detachment retaliated by not showing up for work all weekend.

Quebec politician's emotional response to sex assault allegations

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Public Safety Minister Lise Thériault breaks down while answering media questions about claims of sexual assault by police officers on aboriginal women in Val D'Or, Que.

At a guess, they won't offer warm co-operation if the MMIW commission decides to investigate that episode.

I asked Judge Marion Buller, an Indigenous woman herself and the commission chairwoman, what realistic chance there is of full police co-operation.

"I am cautiously optimistic," she said, optimistically.

Will the commission use its subpoena weapon? Maybe, says Buller.

She's cool to the 2014 RCMP report stressing that female Aboriginal homicides are not so much different from female non-Aboriginal homicides. The solve rate, says the RCMP, is roughly equal, most are killed by a man they know or they live with, and the main difference is that Aboriginal victims are more often intoxicated — and are killed in numbers disproportionate to their share of the population.

The Mountie report "is one piece of evidence," says Buller, carefully. "But not the only piece."

The commission cannot reopen investigations, she points out. But it can "remit new information to the respective police services for their consideration. It's up to them, of course, to determine what they are going to do next."
Judge Marion Buller (right), chief commissioner of the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women, says she guarantees everyone a full hearing. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Can the commission deliver justice to families? Justice, Buller sensibly observes, means different things to different people. She does guarantee everyone a full hearing.

Anyway, as the commission begins its work, here's an interim suggestion:

In Canada, police are obliged to follow enforcement priorities set by the civilian authorities. They don't get to decide their own agenda.

Why not spend another $10 or $20 million, order the RCMP to form a national cold-case unit, to prioritize missing and murdered Indigenous women, and get to work, right now, with the understanding that if they don't, the government will find more responsive Mounties to manage the force?

"How do you know that hasn't been considered?" asked one senior Liberal staffer, off the record.

At the Native Women's Association of Canada, Joan Riggs pondered the question for a moment.

"What a cool idea."


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.