It’s been nearly a year since Canada launched its National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). The inquiry, beginning in 2016, early in Justin Trudeau’s tenure as Canadian Prime Minister, represents a $53.8 million commitment by the federal government and its mandate, as outlined on the MMIWG’s website, is “to examine and report on the systemic causes of all forms of violence against indigenous women and girls in Canada by looking at patterns and underlying factors.” So far, however, the commission has inspired more doubt than hope in its employees as well as in indigenous communities across the country.
Following the resignation of commissioner Marilyn Poitras last month, which brings the total number of commissioners down from five to four, many activists and family members of the missing or murdered women are calling for the commission to be shut down. Like Poitras, they feel that the commission is failing, and will ultimately fail, to accomplish what communities actually need, which is justice for the women and girls already missing or murdered, and also government accountability so that these patterns can start to change.
Some have expressed concern that if the commission shuts down it would see the end of this kind of recuperative effort altogether and a loss of its potential for reaching a sense of closure. This is a valid concern since indigenous women and girls are among the most vulnerable individuals in Canada and these cases often go unsolved, which have become well-known facts to the average Canadian.
According to a report published by Amnesty International in 2004, indigenous women in the country are three and a half times more likely to be the victims of violence than non-indigenous women. The United Nations has also criticized what experts Bailey and Bruun call the country’s “grave violations” of its indigenous citizens’ human rights. They concluded in a 2015 report, updating past statistics, that “young aboriginal women are five times more likely than other Canadian women of the same age to die of violence.”
Although the RCMP has confirmed 1,017 cases of indigenous women murdered between 1980 and 2012, many activists and government officials, including the Canadian Minister for the Status of Women and the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, contest that number. They argue that number must be closer to 4,000.
Despite these figures and international calls for action, the MMIWG represents the first major government program designed to address these issues in any period of Canadian history. The situation is grave and the Canadian government’s history of inaction makes failure now all that much harder to take.
However, the success or failure of the MMIWG does not have to be a zero-sum game. Moreover, even the smallest successes could have longstanding repercussions, both at home and abroad. The plight of indigenous women and girls in Canada is only one iteration of a shared and bloody colonial past. It is a national crisis of international significance.
Poitras’ resignation has reopened the debate about the plan, structure, and purpose of the commission, and therefore this should not be underestimated. As listeners who called in to CBC radio’s Cross Country Checkup on July 16 rightly observed, there is no real precedent for this kind of conflict resolution. That means that solving the MMIWG’s current failures is going to be a difficult and frustrating process, but also that there is the absolute need to try.
“My main concern,” said Poitras, speaking of her resignation to the CBC, “is that this commission is going down a tired road.” The inquiry should be, she continued, “a community driven process,” but may be too mired in a colonial justice system to prove effective. After all, “Having a majority rule means there’s a minority. And as an indigenous person, being a minority is usually a problem.”
What Poitras’ comments and the criticisms of many make clear is that, if the MMIWG is to succeed, it will have to forge new ground. Moving forward, we would, therefore, do best to see the commission as an opportunity because there is, and must still be, room to step back and make the commission what indigenous communities deserve. As Brandi Morin, a Métis writer and self-proclaimed survivor of many hardships facing indigenous women today, wrote to the CBC, “I am still holding onto hope for [the MMIWG’s] success, in whatever form it takes.”
The trick, as the MMIWG moves into its second year of proceedings, will be to balance the search for a better way of doing things with the fight against the inertia that could result from taking time off. To that end, there are some concrete places to start.
First, the federal government needs to empower the MMIWG to reopen cold cases and to hold police departments responsible for negligent investigations. There can be no resolution without the possibility for justice and, at this point in Canada’s history, the ability to prosecute offenders is not too much to ask.
Second, the MMIWG needs to involve families and indigenous community members in its proceedings, not just in the presentation of evidence but as participatory voices in the search for justice.
Third, the MMIWG needs to start making recommendations to municipal, provincial, and federal governments about improving indigenous relations now. It needs to involve police departments in its proceedings and advise on how to combat prejudice and better respond to missing person cases, which involve indigenous women.
Finally, it needs to do better to communicate with families and communities about its findings, even as they develop so that healing can begin to take place.
It is time to put pressure on a Liberal government which specializes in media optics but too often fails to follow through on its gestures of goodwill. Canada’s national inquiry is never going to answer the hopes of every interested party, but that does not mean that it is time to give up. Canadians and the peace keeping community around the world need to keep this conversation open, and they need to check in, taking on the feedback of specifically affected communities each step of the way.
“We don’t have time to waste,” wrote Brandi Morin on July 28, “it’s already been too long and almost every day we learn about another being lost or gone.”
The answers for how best to proceed are not going to come easily, but who ever thought they would? Justice for these women and girls is not too much to fight for or to ask.
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