Canada’s National Inquiry and the Attainment of Justice

Photograph of the Walking With Our Sisters Exhibition to honour the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Photograph of the Walking With Our Sisters Exhibition to honour the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada’s (NWAC) report card grading the progress of the commission tasked with conducting the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is disappointing. The proposed shortcomings, which include issues of effective communication and the scope of the investigation, are cause for concern among many families and advocates affected by the inquiry, particularly since these issues have arisen before the testimony process has even begun.

Criticism of the Progress so Far

One of the main issues highlighted in the NWAC report is the lack of appropriate and sufficient communication by the government and commission to families. A lack of centralized and up to date information has forced many families to rely on social media to obtain information about the progress of the inquiry and what is to come. In turn, this negatively affects the level of transparency that exists concerning the commission’s activities. The impact of this lack of communication and transparency is further heightened by the time it has taken for the inquiry to begin. Many family members have expressed their frustration regarding the lack of information that is available to them directly from the government. Mag Cywink, who’s sister Sonya Cywink was killed in 1994, explained how this led family members to become suspicious and nervous about the inquiry.

The commission’s terms of reference, which establishes the scope of the inquiry, is another concern highlighted in the NWAC’s report card. Mainly, the commissioners’ mandate focuses on identifying the systemic causes of violence and proposes actions to help combat violence against Indigenous women and girls. Families and activists have repeatedly requested in the pre-inquiry process for commissioners’ mandate to include police conduct and to reopen specific cases. However, the commission is now set to look into violence prevention and not police action. What the inquiry will and will not cover is of great importance as it determines the overall limitations that may exist with the process and the ability of the inquiry to be truly effective in achieving its task of moving towards justice for missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Failure to investigate all aspects related to the matter makes it impossible to establish a holistic account of the epidemic and undermines both the work of the commission and its ability to heal the wounds of those affected.

Does a Change in Leaders Lead to a Change in Practices?

Activists, community leaders, and families have called for an investigation regarding the disproportionate level of violence against Aboriginal women and girls for more than 10 years and have only recently found limited success. The legacies of colonialism, harmful government legislation, and high rates of poverty have been identified as some of the root causes of this violence. The reality of disproportionate levels of violence against the female aboriginal community has been supported consistently by a variety of organizations and individuals. A 2014 report released by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police highlighted that Aboriginal women in Canada were overrepresented in the national totals for missing and murdered women. Additionally during a nine day tour of Canada in 2013, James Anaya, the former UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, stated his concern regarding the status of the Indigenous community in Canada. More specifically, he stated that the government’s steps to address the issue faced by Indigenous women were insufficient and he supported a nationwide and comprehensive inquiry as an opportunity for families’ concerns to be heard and for responsive action to be taken.

Regardless of the overwhelming evidence and concern surrounding the epidemic, in 2014 former Prime Minister Steven Harper stated that MMIW was not a priority issue for the government – a statement he later claimed he didn’t make. Harper’s harmful attitude towards national indigenous issues and realities extended far beyond this statement. In 2007, his government refused to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), citing the declaration as “aspirational” and unnecessary in the Canadian context. Canada was one of the only member states of the United Nations who did not sign the declaration.

It was not until the Conservative Party’s loss of power and the rise of the Liberals that the government’s policy and attitude towards the Aboriginal population began to change, although truly significant change has yet to occur. In May 2016, Canada finally adopted the UNDRIP, but just a few months later Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould stated that the declaration being adopted as Canadian law would be “unworkable”.

The disconnect between adopted policies and the actual long-term implementation of these policies raises concerns regarding the government’s effectiveness in helping the Aboriginal community. Although Trudeau’s claims of his party’s commitment to Aboriginal issues are commendable, claims on their own do little to demonstrate commitment. The actual implementation of policy and the consequences of actions are the basis through which one can judge the government’s work. The initial concerns that have been raised by the NWAC surrounding the communication, transparency, and scope of the Inquiry shed a negative light on this proposed commitment. The government now has the choice of making changes to take the inquiry in a direction that truly fulfills its tasks or continuing the history of neglect that Aboriginal peoples in Canada have seen for so long.