The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) set out in September 2016 to find answers into the multitude of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. Since then, the inquiry has lost employees and a commissioner, leaving many victimized families and the public with few answers and a lot of questions.
Some observers and family members now wonder whether Canadian legislation is the cause of the inquiry’s stagnation, while others see an unfit inquiry still in place.
On March 21, CBC reported that databases across Canada have recorded more than 1,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women. And yet the inquiry at that time, according to the report, had only 122 family members’ names recorded in their database.
The inquiry’s mandate, according to its website, is “to examine and report on the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women and girls.”
Fast-forward a year later and seven employees have already left the inquiry. The former director of communications, Michael Hutchinson, lost his position in February, and the reason for his departure is not clear. Resigning in June were senior communications advisor Sue Montgomery, manager of community relations Tanya Kappo, director of operations Chantale Courcy, and in July executive director Michele Moreau departed. Waneek Horn-Miller, the director of community relations, resigned in early August, citing a need to spend more time with her faimly.
In addition, Marilyn Poitras resigned in July as one of five commissioners.
According to news reports, Poitras stated in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “It is clear to me that I am unable to perform my duties as a commissioner with the process designed in its current structure.” CBC reported that “the vision she held was shared by few within the national inquiry, and the ‘status quo colonial model’ of hearings is the path for most.”
“The inquiry is designated to a legislation that doesn’t fit an Indigenous perspective,” said Michelle Robinson, chairperson of the Indigenous Peoples’ Commission, a group that represents Indigenous Canadians at the political level. Robinson is also running in the civic election to represent Ward 10 on Calgary city council.
“The commission was obviously set up for a different legislation. It’s not even that the inquiry is faulty, it’s that the legislation that’s guiding the inquiry is,” Robinson said. “The colonial model doesn’t fit on Indigenous people, like that’s what the real problem here is.
“It’s that we have a colonial, legal, law that [Indigenous people] are being forced to work on.”
“The reason why we have the MMIWG is because of the imposed legislation to the Indian Act. Well how do you expect commissioners to be able to work with an Indigenous lens in a colonial setting? That’s the problem. So I’m not surprised [with all the resignations] happening by any stretch,” Robinson explained. “We are not going to [have] representation done properly … because of it, because of Canadian legislation.”
Beverly Jacobs, a lawyer who has worked with families through her consulting work with the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said, “The commissioners have the ability to develop whatever it wants to develop and I find that it’s been limited by Canadian law.”
Jacobs has also authored reports, one of them to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples Rights and another to Amnesty International, a movement that works towards protecting and promoting human rights.
“I’m totally aware of what Canadian law can do and what it has done,” she said. “Canadian law itself has been a tool of assimilation and genocide for Indigenous people and people don’t know that.”
Jacobs travelled across Canada for her six-month study, meeting with families who will participate in her Amnesty International report, released Oct. 4, 2004, that highlights the stories of those who have been lost and murdered. Many of the families Jacobs spoke with “didn’t know who Amnesty was.” She met with them “to build trust … and to let them know who Amnesty is and where their report is going to go.” The families had to know “who I am and where I come from and the work that I do,” Jacobs explained.
In the case of the inquiry, “the families here are not trusting the process and not trusting how this [is] turning out,” Jacobs said of the families she spoke with at the Six Nations reserve. “Trust needed to be developed from the beginning. That has never been done and if it’s been done, it’s only been done with their national family advisory group. It hasn’t been done on a national scale with families who at the moment feel like they don’t have a voice, which is not how it should be.”
Robinson added that the inquiry is “never actually within jurisdiction of reservations ever.”
Robinson was interviewed on Aug. 3 and since then the inquiry has announced meetings in Nova Scotia. According to an Aug. 15 CBC report, “a team of health, legal and community relations workers” planned visits to the Membertou First Nation on Aug. 16 and the Millbrook First Nation on Aug. 17 and “[more] visits are planned ahead of a community hearing planned for Halifax the week of Oct. 30.”
“If we are going to have a legitimate inquiry, then they need to go out to the Stoneys, they need to go out to Siksika, they need to go to the Kainai Nations, and they need to have outreach at all of the nations,” Robinson said. “Now we are talking over 600 nations but unfortunately if it’s true complications, that’s what we should be doing.”
Jacobs explained that the families’ experiences are based on trauma and the inquiry has to understand how to deal with that.
“You’re asking families to share their stories,” Jacobs recalled explaining to Amnesty International about what the process of gathering sensitive information should be like. “So what are you going to give them in return?”
Jacobs established with Amnesty International that once her report was finished and released, a gathering would be held for all the families who participated. “It was a very emotional time,” she recalled, “because families realized that they weren’t alone because that’s how they were feeling initially.”
Jacobs explained that through the gathering they were able to build a “reciprocal relationship,” wherein the families not only knew they were not alone but also where the report was going.
“Being Treaty 7 from the Blackfoot confederacy, we have one meeting in one place,” said Stephanie English, mother of Joey English who died last year. “Why [is the inquiry] doing it from province to province?”
“Just have it at one place where you know all these families can have that unity asone.”
The death of English’s daughter, Joey, was ruled as being the result of a drug overdose. The 25-year-old’s death was discovered on June 8, 2016, after Joshua Weise dismembered her and threw some body parts in the garbage and a treed area near Centre Street North. Weise was sentenced to 18 months in prison with an additional three-year probation along with completing substance abuse treatment, according to recent reports.
WHERE DO WE HEAD FROM HERE?
“Why [should I] have to live my life to communication of Internet?” asked Stephanie English. “When I was brought up, where it was face-to-face not mouth-to-mouth, none of this Internet stuff … it doesn’t work that way.”
English expressed disappointment in the number of resignations coming from those serving the inquiry.
“I’d figured we’d have people out there that are supporting [people] like myself and my situation, where I figured I would finally have a strong front line that will support us, but yet they all resigned,” she commented. “We need stronger people that have been in the same situation but yet are willing to help other families out there and work with the government to find a better way, a better solution, and better ways of healing.”
The inquiry “really needs to see who’s for the people and who is not because [there’s] a lot of people who are going to walk away and lose that hope for others only because they lost it for themselves. If it were given to me like on what I needed to do, I would do the footwork,” explained English. “What I needed to do to find that closure but yet I didn’t receive any.”
“From the beginning I haven’t received nothing but yet I received a lot from my people, my elders, my family, my partner, and these little children,” she said, referring to her daughter and grandchildren.
“I thought that professionals are there to really help me but yet it’s not like that,” English continued. “The white man doctor just gives us pills, he gives us diagnosis that we don’t even understand. In the first place, we’re just there with broken hearts. Well how do we heal a broken heart? Well, we need to follow our traditional ways.
“I really see these people that stepped down, they just actually turned their backs on us.”
Justice advocate Lauren Crazybull said, “I’ve kind of taken a step back from paying attention to the inquiry. It took so long to get and then it feels like a big let down. Every time I see an article about it, it’s pretty disappointing. I remember pre-inquiry, I was like advocating for an inquiry but now … I just feel pretty tired. I’m not really counting on it.
“I’m just going to continue the work that I’m doing and hopefully it will get sorted out, but in the meantime I hope there’s not a lot of families who are really, really counting on it because I don’t know how much they will be able to deliver justice for [the families].”
Crazybull has helped the Indigenous community in various ways, from organizing rallies in the city to hosting podcasts and radio shows that focus on Indigenous issues. She currently teaches youths how to paint, pursue art as a career, or use it for healing purposes in addition to helping her aunt, Sandra Manyfeathers, organize the next Justice for Jackie Walk that happens every October.
It’s been 10 years since Jacqueline “Jackie” Clara Crazybull was murdered.
“We just walk through 17th Avenue S.W. in Calgary and then we end the walk with like a small ceremony by the bench she was murdered at,” said Jackie’s niece Lauren Crazybull.
Jackie, who was 43 at that time, died after being stabbed on July 11, 2007. Calgary police have still “not made any arrests in her murder to date,” according to a CBC report.
“Our experience has been one of frustration,” said Manyfeathers, sister to Jackie.
Sadly, Manyfeathers also had another sister murdered. Yvonne Crazybull, who died in 1991, was reportedly “beaten to death by her common-law husband.”
“The guy that murdered Yvonne wasn’t her common-law husband,” saidManyfeathers. “He was some guy that had previously dated one of my other sisters and one day he just decided that he is going to beat my sister up.
“She died as a result of her injuries but because the media presented the case to the public as a domestic dispute, society really kind of just threw that case to the side.”
Manyfeathers spoke of her and her family’s frustration with the justice system. “They really have shown us that our lives don’t matter because they’re not doing anything in terms of judicial consequences towards the people that are murdering them. Like they’re basically saying that we can be murdered and that there will be no consequence for the ones who do murder us.”
Robinson argued “that there has never been political leadership until recently that acknowledges Indigenous peoples as human beings.”
“At this point, to be effective they need to be meeting with family members,” Jacobs suggested. “They need to start building that trust. It’s about establishing that humanness.”
When the inquiry was formed, however, Manyfeathers said, “we were relieved that the government was actually listening but it was really short-lived.”
Manyfeathers recalled her own disappointing experience.
“When [the inquiry] came to Calgary, they met with us, they gave us a really short window of time to present what we thought was important,” she said. “They gave us less than 10 minutes to present — they already dictated what we could say.”
“They kept saying that, ‘We know that it’s important, we know your loved ones are important,’ and this is actually who the inquiry is about,” Manyfeathers said. “It’s about missing and murdered Indigenous women, but when they came to Calgary, it wasn’t about that. It was them getting their business done and having society believe that they were on the right track. It’s just a revictimization.
“We have to heal according to the way that they prescribe it to us,” she added. “We are not allowed to heal or we are not allowed to give evidence in the way that is important and real to us.”
In addition, Lauren Crazybull suggested the inquiry also support other foundations with similar interests. “You can’t have like one organization in the city and expect like everything to go away.”
“We’ve been shoved to the side,” said Manyfeathers of operating at the “grassroots level” to bring justice for the missing and murdered. “When there was no government officials involved and we were the ones that were leading, we were actually leading it in a way where we were getting the information to the media, we were getting what we needed and what needed to be heard, what’s being said. But once people started getting paid to lead the [MMIWG] cause, then they began to dictate what we need and how we need it.”
Jacobs explained that “when we are talking about this issue as Indigenous people, there are certain protocols and processes and ceremonies that are in place when we are talking about the dead. There should’ve been a ceremony right from day one to honour the spirits of those women.”
But the inquiry also has to be more than just a platform to share stories of those who have been lost and murdered, Lauren Crazybull suggested. It has to look “at the police involvement in a lot of [these] cases.” There has been “a lack of action, the slowness and the lack of immediate action on [these] cases is something” that should be discussed and investigated.
Jacobs argued that the inquiry had to be “totally reformed,” suggesting the people hired do not understand “how deep” the issue is. The inquiry “has to be reset with the terms of reference that includes the investigation of policing and the impacts of that,” she added.
Ten months after the inquiry was established, CBC reported on July 27 that the inquiry will start reviewing police conduct after facing pressure from the families of victims. Although “looking at police conduct is mandated in the inquiry’s terms of reference,” this document “makes no mention of investigating police conduct explicitly, but does say the inquiry can report misconduct of any kind to ‘the appropriate authorities.’”
“We can’t erase [the process up to now] but I think it can be incorporated into the new process and there may have to be a return back to ensure that the issues about policing have been addressed and that families have been able to ask the questions that they need to ask because I think that’s part of the mistake with this inquiry, is that families are not able to ask those questions,” said Jacobs.
Robinson, on the other hand, argued that “we are having a narrative in the media about reform that’s not legislative policy.”
“We can have a big talk, and that’s just [a] political talking point,” explained Robinson. “It’s not real legislative change, so we can’t have reform ... We have to either work with the system that we got or we have to disband it all together."
Calgary Journal journalist and CJSW radio host, Grace Heavy Runner, was a huge help in the completion of this piece. Discover her story at The Calgary Journal: Journalist shares radio voice for Indigenous victims
- By Rosemary De Souza