'Speeding towards failure': Why a Métis lawyer quit the MMIWG Inquiry

Breen Ouellette says the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls doesn't have enough time, money or power to properly do its job.

Breen Ouellette is the latest to resign from an inquiry plagued with delays, complaints and high turnover

Photographs of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) on display at the the Manitoba Legislative Building last year. A national inquiry into MMIWG has been plagued by chronic delays and staff turnover. (Paul Wildinette/CBC)
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Breen Ouellette says the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls doesn't have enough time, money or power to do its job. 

The Vancouver lawyer, who is Métis, announced his resignation from the MMIWG inquiry this week, citing "interference by the federal government" — an allegation the Crown Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs office denies.

He is one of more than 20 officials to step down since the inquiry was launched in 2016.

At the heart of Ouellette's concerns is the government's refusal to grant the inquiry a two-year extension and additional funding. Instead, the government extended the deadline by six months.

Ouellette spoke to As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan about why he quit. Here is part of that conversation.

What do you fear is going to be missed without this extension?

One of the big issues is that the commission has taken, or has pending, a total of 1,700 testimonies across the country. 

Part of the purpose of a national inquiry is to investigate the allegations that are brought forward in the testimony.

These are very complex systemic issues across 14 different legal jurisdictions — all the provinces, territories and the federal level — and I can't see any reasonable way that the government would expect the inquiry to complete its work on the basis of the short extension.

Terry Ladue breaks down while speaking to commissioners at the first public hearings of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Whitehorse last year. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

I actually spoke to Minister of Crown Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett about this last month, and what she told me is that the two-year extension could not be granted because the provinces and territories were not all in agreement.

And she said ... many Indigenous families also just want this process to be over with, for the healing to begin, for action to start to take place. How do you respond to that?

With respect to the families and the survivors of violence, there are many that came and gave their testimony because they're seeking justice. They want answers and they're still there. They're still waiting.

The other side of the coin is that Minister Bennett's comment about what the provinces and the territories want is further demonstrative of how these governments are trying to shirk their responsibilities as the creators of the national inquiry.

You have also said that the government has undermined the independence and impartiality of the inquiry. How so, exactly?

You've got a government that is saying, "We're going to talk with the inquiry about what kind of budget increases they're going to get." That is in direct interference with how the commission is going to get its work done.

What do you mean by that?

The federal government is a party with standing before this tribunal, so they're influencing its decision about how to proceed with the investigation.

From the very beginning, you must have known that this inquiry would be a massive undertaking. What was it that convinced you to join it in the first place?

I was asked to submit a resume and I respectfully declined.

But then I found myself having difficulty sleeping for a couple of days after that. And the reason was that I kept thinking about my nieces.

I'm Métis, and if something ever happened to them, if one of them went missing or was murdered, then I would feel that I had played a part in it.

So I submitted my resume after reflecting on that.

So now that you have left, what does that mean for your nieces?

Right now it means that I have to continue to do what I can outside of the commission to try to see that it gets back on the right track.

I'm just one lawyer. There's not much I can do, but I'm going to speak out.

Frances Neumann is greeted by Chief Commissioner Marion Buller as the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls got underway in Whitehorse, under a tent on the banks of the Yukon River. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

I think that this is an issue that all Canadians should really be paying attention to because $1.4 billion is being transferred over the next six years from the federal government to provincial governments and territories for the purpose of Indigenous children in foster care.

That's a lot of tax money.

And this inquiry is one of the few democratic machines that we have in place that can actually investigate the allegations of families of abuse, of having their children taken from them, and identify where those problems are happening, identify the people that are responsible, and make it possible for the public to urge the government to stop it.

You say that this inquiry is "speeding towards failure." What do you think that means for the families of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls?

To me what that means is that they will not receive the justice they were seeking when they came to give their testimony.

And many of the people who came to testify about their loss were doing so because they wanted answers and they wanted someone out there to say: "What was done to you and your loved one was wrong."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Imogen Birchard. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.