Politics

Indigenous women's organization gives Ottawa failing grade on its MMIWG response

The most prominent Indigenous women's organization in Canada is handing the federal government a failing grade for its response to the recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, as critics condemn the delay in releasing a national action plan.

Group wants a national task force with independent investigators appointed

Cheryl McDonald from Kanesatake listens to speakers during ceremonies marking the release of the national inquiry's final report into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Gatineau, Que., on June 3, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The most prominent Indigenous women's organization in Canada is handing the federal government a failing grade for its response to the recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, as critics condemn the delay in releasing a national action plan.

The Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) issued a scathing report card Wednesday to mark the one year anniversary of the release of the inquiry's final report and unveiled its own strategy on what Ottawa should do.

"I'm really disappointed in the process because it's lack-of," NWAC president Lorraine Whitman said in an interview with CBC News. "But saying that, I do hope that they'll start proceeding."

NWAC gave Canada a failing grade in four evaluated areas: culture, health, security and the right to justice.

Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, issued her organization's own action plan to mark the one-year anniversary of the national inquiry's conclusion. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Among its requests, NWAC is asking Ottawa to immediately:

  • Create a national task force with independent investigators to review unresolved files of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
  • Develop a national database of cases.
  • Appoint an independent mechanism to report to Parliament annually on implementation of recommendations.
  • Establish a national campaign to prevent racism and sexualized stereotypes.

The organization also wants to be at all decision-making tables with the federal government on issues related to Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people. It is also looking for financial resources to create its own awareness campaign and an internal unit to work on the recommendations.

Still consulting groups

In an interview with CBC News, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said the federal government and its partners are working as quickly as they can to develop a coordinated strategy for the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

"We won't let them down," Bennett said. "I think that we've got some excellent building blocks toward a national action plan."

Bennett said the federal government is still consulting with Indigenous women's groups, Indigenous leadership and provincial and territorial governments on the co-development of a national action plan to address the inquiry's 231 recommendations, even though the pandemic has prevented in-person meetings.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett promises not to let the survivors and families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls down. (Logan Perley/CBC)

Bennett's office insists the strategy will not be the federal government's plan, but rather one that all partners will produce together.

The federal government said the national action plan will focus on several themes, including rural and remote communities and urban Indigenous populations, and will include sections on racism and men and boys.

To help national and regional Indigenous and gender-diverse organizations respond to the inquiry, the department is seeking more than $6 million, according to the latest supplementary estimates report.

Indigenous Services Canada is seeking $4 million to create new shelters and support violence prevention projects, according to the estimates.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation is also looking for more than $3 million to create shelters in reserves and in the territories to bolster protection for Indigenous women and children fleeing violence.

A woman embraces commissioner Qajaq Robinson during the closing ceremonies for the national inquiry. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The federal government is also highlighting work already done in response to the inquiry in a new website, which promotes federal legislation to protect Indigenous languages and an overhaul of the child welfare system among its key responses.

Although Bennett's office said it has begun to receive interim and final engagement reports from its partners, it has set no submission deadlines for the national action plan. 

Co-ordinated response sought

Former commissioner Qajaq Robinson told CBC News the federal government has shown it can pull together a response involving multiple jurisdictions with COVID-19 and it an do the same on the missing and murdered file.

"A nationwide, co-ordinated response is imperative. Not disconnected patches of varied levels of engagement and response," former commissioner Qajaq Robinson told CBC News.

"They must do it for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls as well."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands after being presented with the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In a statement released today, the former commissioners of the inquiry decried inaction on the part of some governments and called on Canada to appoint an impartial international organization to oversee the implementation of their recommendations. 

"The swift implementation of the National Inquiry's Calls for Justice is essential to address Canada's responsibility for the commission of genocide and for violations of fundamental human rights," the statement read.

"Should Canada fail to do so in a timely manner, we strongly encourage Indigenous women, girls and 2S people to invite international and impartial oversight of the implementation of the Calls for Justice."

The inquiry recommended governments establish a national Indigenous and human rights ombudsperson, and to establish a national Indigenous human rights tribunal. 

Watch: Former chief commissioner calls for release of national action plan

MMIWG Inquiry Chair Marion Buller on what progress has been made one year after the inquiry delivered its report to the federal government. 7:32

Speaking to CBC's Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos, former national inquiry chief commissioner Marion Buller said the federal government seems to be either "unwilling" or "unable" to provide the necessary leadership to move ahead with a national action plan, especially without any concrete timelines.

"They've just left us, all Canadians, in a void of information here," Buller said.

"The government has said, 'Yes, we have given money.' Well, our report is more about power sharing and partnerships, and I don't see that fundamental paradigm shift in relationships happening at all."

COVID-19 presents 'double slap in the face'

NWAC said Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people continue to face barriers to justice, inadequate victim services, food insecurity, and they are more likely to be unemployed — all of which is being made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, which the federal government has blamed for the delay of the national action plan.

"When we are asked to do reports and what have you, we have a time frame and we have to have that report in to government whatever it be," Whitman said. "Why does it not be reciprocated on the other end of the government?"

From left, chief commissioner Marion Buller and commissioners Brian Eyolfson, Qajaq Robinson and Michele Audette prepare the final report to give to the government at the closing ceremony last year. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Whitman said COVID-19 has highlighted the fact that Indigenous people are at higher risk due to systematic overcrowding, food insecurity, lack of clean water and inadequate health services and infrastructure.

In an online survey conducted by NWAC and verified by Nanos Research, 18 per cent of Indigenous women and 25 per cent of Two Spirits reported experiencing violence in the past three months.

Whitman said using COVD-19 as an excuse to delay of the national action plan is a "double slap in the face" to Indigenous women, who are living in greater fear of violence because of isolation from the pandemic. 

Dialogue called mostly 1-way

Whitman said NWAC, which plans to issue continuous report cards on Ottawa's progress, has not heard back from Bennett's office about its proposal.

Heidi Illingworth, federal ombudsman for victims of crime, said the delay of the national action plan can't be blamed on one minister. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Whitman has attended meetings over a national action plan, but said the dialogue is mostly going one way.

For example, Whitman said she was on a Zoom call on Monday with approximately 300 participants, including representatives from women's groups and government officials, along with Bennett and Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef.

Whitman said the jam-packed meeting left only a few minutes for each person to speak .

"That's not consultation in my mind, because there's no room for discussion," Whitman said. "Why would you want to do more consultation? … It's now [time] for action."

Not up to one minister

In a statement to mark the one-year anniversary of the inquiry's final report, Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime Heidi Illingworth described Canada's response as "inadequate" and said it is not to be blamed solely on one minister. 

"All ministers and MPs need to be a part of the process and should also be held accountable to Indigenous communities," Illingworth said.

Illingworth also said families and advocates have made themselves clear: no more consultations are needed.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh challenged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday over the Liberal Government's response to the national inquiry. (Adrian Wlyd/Canadian Press)

In the House of Commons today, MPs challenged the government on the issue.

"More consultation should not be an excuse for inaction," independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould said.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over the delay of the action plan.

"We have been responding for five years and taking action for five years," Trudeau responded. "We did not wait for the end of this inquiry to act."

Watch: Indigenous MPs ask Bennett when MMIWG report will see action

Crown Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennettt was questioned by Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould and NDP MP Leah Gazan on Wednesday. 7:17

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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