Politics

Minnesota inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women looks to Canada for guidance

A state inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women in Minnesota is taking lessons from Canada on how to make sure its upcoming report doesn't end up gathering dust on a shelf.

Minnesota team reached out to former inquiry chief commissioner Marion Buller for advice

Former chief commissioner Marion Buller of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls told Minnesota's state task force she wanted more time to look into human trafficking, the plight of incarcerated women and coroner practices. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A state inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women in Minnesota is taking lessons from Canada on how to make sure its upcoming report doesn't end up gathering dust on a shelf.

Minnesota's task force is trying to do in just 15 months much of what Canada's $92 million federally-funded national inquiry accomplished in four years. It has reached out to Marion Buller, the former chief commissioner of the national inquiry, for advice.

Nigel Perrote is the tribal liaison for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and is coordinating the task force. He said the mission initially felt like a "double-edged sword," especially since Canada set a high bar.

But Perrote said Canada's experience, along with the timeline for Minnesota's inquiry, inspired the task force to be efficient and focus on turning its upcoming recommendations into results through the development of an implementation plan.

"One of the things we learned from Canada … you have this report and you've developed this report, but there is no next step for how to move forward," Perrote said.

"So within the development of our recommendations, we're looking at how do we continue on this work and how do we implement it with a strategic plan, but also how do we look at what are the outcomes that we need to measure moving forward."

One year after Canada's inquiry submitted its final report with 231 recommendations to the federal government, Ottawa still has not released a plan on how to respond. The government has blamed the pandemic for the delay.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not derailed Minnesota's work. Meetings continue to be held via Zoom and a final report is due Dec. 15.

Buller wished for more time to analyze human trafficking

Buller spoke with Minnesota's team in March via video conference to offer guidance. She said she has been contacted also by the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Native Americans in the southeastern U.S., who are focused on the problem of human trafficking.

Buller said her discussions with the Minnesota team touched on how to conduct public hearings so that the participants feel that they're being heard. They also discussed the mechanics of inquiries — things like providing transportation for participants and making sure tissues and water are always available on site.

Canada still doesn't have a national action plan to implement the recommendations from the inquiry one year after commissioners submitted their final report to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Buller said she also warned the Minnesotans about the intense media scrutiny they can expect, the dangers of misleading information circulating on social media and the importance of managing personal stress.

"In the time since the inquiry, I realized how lucky I was to have been a judge for 22 years and had training as a judge in how to handle my vicarious trauma," Buller said.

"How did I handle it? Probably, at moments, not very well. I was known to cry and to hug people at times. But pacing yourself and learning about my vicarious trauma is really important and it was very helpful to me as well, so I'm grateful to have had that experience."

Buller said there are several areas the Canadian inquiry could have explored more deeply with more time. She cited human trafficking — a major concern in Minnesota — women in the prison system, the effect of work camps and resource extraction on the safety of Indigenous women, and the relationship between coroners and families.

Buller said she is still waiting to see a shift in the way all levels of government and the public respond to deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls one year after issuing the commission's final report.

The former commissioners of the Canadian inquiry are calling for international oversight of the implementation of their recommendations, which they said could come from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Organization of American States or the International Red Cross.

The inquiry itself was not free of internal strife. Its executive director, Debbie Reid, resigned in early 2018 — one of a number of high-profile departures of inquiry personnel.

While the inquiry itself wouldn't comment on the reasons for Reid's resignation, she attracted controversy after her introductory email to staff was leaked; in it, she stated their primary role was to protect the inquiry's commissioners from "criticism or surprises."

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett issued a statement following Reid's departure, saying she was "concerned about the amount of turnover at the commission" and worried that it would "distract" from the inquiry's work.

The George Floyd effect

The Minnesota inquiry is operating separately from the Trump administration's Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, which is designed to create and implement a federal strategy to combat the crisis.

Dubbed 'Operation Lady Justice', the federal task force is reviewing cold cases ⁠— something that was not in the Canadian commission's mandate.

"People want answers," Buller said. "Even to know that somebody has reopened the case can be helpful."

President Donald Trump shows an executive order establishing the Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives in the Oval Office of the White House on Nov. 26, 2019. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

The state task force is studying many of the same topics examined by the Canadian inquiry, including policing and child welfare.

Perrote said the purpose is to examine the underlying systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and two-spirit individuals in Minnesota, and to find ways to reduce violence and promote healing.

Unlike Canada's inquiry, which operated with just a handful of commissioners, the task force has 27 members. They include representatives from each of the 11 tribal nations in Minnesota, representatives of law enforcement, public health and criminal justice, advocates and survivors.

But like Canada's inquiry, the state inquiry is expected to recommend legislative changes that will require funding.

"There's a lack of response and sometimes there's a lack of understanding by victims and survivors and families of how to navigate those systems," Perrote said.

"For the most part, a lot of the systems that have been built are not necessarily reflective of the people who are entering the system, especially when we're talking about Indigenous communities … I think it's really important that as we're doing this work, we have to understand that we have to take a hard look at our systems."

Perrote said the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck, is highlighting that need.

"Indigenous and Native people here, we have a shared history with African American people here in the U.S., so I think there is a lot of crossover and parallels in what's going on here in light of the killing of George Floyd," Perrote said.

"There's that motivation to see change happening."

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

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