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'I needed to sleep at night': Marilyn Poitras on why she left the MMIWG inquiry

Former commissioner Marilyn Poitras tells CBC why she believes the MMIWG inquiry will not succeed in its current form.
Former commissioner Marilyn Poitras tells CBC why she believes the MMIWG inquiry will not succeed in its current form. (CBC)

For weeks, Marilyn Poitras looked for a reason to stay on as a commissioner of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

"I wanted to wait. [To see,] am I missing something? Have I not tried something? Is there a way that this commission can go down a road that I was hoping we were going to go down? And I just couldn't find one."

Last week, the Saskatchewan law professor resigned from her role as one of the inquiry's five commissioners. Poitras, who is Métis, argues that the commission is going down a "tried road" that has failed in the past.

"We've been studied. We've been researched," she said. "We've gone and looked at Indians and half-breeds and Inuit people for a long time to see what's the problem: 'You tell us your sad story and we'll figure out what to do with you'... If it worked, we would all be so fixed and healthy by now."

Poitras says she had hoped to put Indigenous process first, to rely on cultural laws and practices - yet instead the inquiry is following the "status quo, colonial model" of hearings.

"After serving on this commission for the past 10 months, I realized the vision I hold is shared by very few within the national inquiry," she wrote in her resignation letter.  

'This is an opportunity that will not come again'

The inquiry, announced in late 2015, was part of a promise made by the current government to examine the uncomfortable truths behind the staggering levels of violence against Indigenous women. It followed decades of deaths, disappearances and repeated calls to investigate the national epidemic.

Explore Checkup's interactive timeline of the journey to the national inquiry:

Beginning its work nearly a year ago, the $53.8-million-dollar inquiry came under fire early on - criticized by some for lacking the power to reopen cases or investigate police misconduct. The need to address "institutional racism within law enforcement" was made clear during pre-inquiry consultations in Indigenous communities.

Soon activists and victims' family members began expressing frustrations about the lack of consultation, poor communication, repeated delays, feelings of disrespect and the inquiry's terms of reference.

"You must take immediate action to mitigate the damage and fundamentally shift your approach in order to move forward in a credible way," reads an open letter to the commissioner leading the inquiry, Marion Buller. "This is an opportunity that will not come again and none of us can afford for it to fail." Released in May, the letter was signed by more than 30 Indigenous advocates, leaders and family members of victims.

While some in Indigenous communities still say the current inquiry should move forward, Poitras' resignation comes amid calls from Indigenous leaders and victims' families to reset and re-staff the commission. It also follows a string of other staff departures.

"It doesn't matter where you work," Poitras said, "people need to feel that their voice is included, that they're recognized, that their fingerprints are on the work that they're deeply committed too. And I don't think people are feeling that."

'I signed up to get to the root causes'

Part of the solution to the problems plaguing the inquiry is more effective community involvement, according to the former commissioner.

"We need to be engaged with the community in ways that say: 'What does it look like to be on the street? What are the issues?'"

While Indigenous communities and victims' families have been involved through hearings, she says simply listening to family stories will not uncover the underlying reasons for the disturbing levels of violence against Indigenous women.

Available statistics consistently point to their disproportionate representation in cases of violent crime, homicide and missing persons.

"If it's a commission set up for hearings, to hear family stories, it's going to be successful. But... I'm not sure what you're going to learn that you don't already know... I'm walking away because I don't see that that's helpful," she said.

"I signed up to get to the root causes."

Poitras says unless this inquiry finds concrete solutions, it will be just another report.

"At the end of the day, are we coming up with solutions? Are they community-driven? Is there an action plan? Because just a report to go along with my beautiful collection of reports on Indigenous people - I'm not happy with that."

The systemic violence affecting Indigenous communities also goes far beyond missing and murdered women and girls, she says.

"We're talking about sexual violence. We're talking about institutional violence, death inside institutions. [And] suicide rates in our country for Indigenous youth are through the roof."

'I needed to sleep at night'

Poitras says her decision to resign became clear when she felt her integrity was at stake.

"In the end, being in a meeting and hearing from my colleagues that the commission was spiritually-grounded and we were guided by Elders regularly... for me that's not the case… and I couldn't sit in the room and say this is my experience any more. So when I felt my integrity was being questioned, I couldn't do it," she said.

"My resignation is because I needed to sleep at night about where I thought this commission was going and what I thought it could do."

Regardless of the results that may come of the federal inquiry, Poitras says the family members and activist organizations that have taken on this cause will continue their work.

"The reason that this inquiry exists in the first place is because a bunch of mums and grandmas and aunties and daughters got up and said: 'No more. Our women are just as important as anybody else's women'

"These families, the organizations that are working on this – they didn't start because of the commission, they didn't stop because we got going and they are going to be here long after we're done."

Hear more from CBC's exclusive interview with Marilyn Poitras:

Former commissioner Marilyn Poitras tells Checkup host Duncan McCue why she believes the MMIWG inquiry will not succeed in its current form. 9:30

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