Krista Shore’s mother, Barbara Stonechild, was murdered in Regina in 1996. Ms Shore was present at July’s national meeting of the Assembly of First Nations, where the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) came under close scrutiny.
Ms Shore, along with many families who have lost mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, grandmothers and granddaughters and a number of provincial and territorial Indigenous organizations, supported the call for the resignation of the present Commissioners, saying this is the only way to ensure the truthfulness and transparency that are required if the outcome of the inquiry is to have integrity and meaning for those most affected by the disappearances and murders. As she said:
“I was born into politics. I was born an Indian woman in the state of Canada. Every day I go out my door, I face racism; racism kills our people.”
After years in which the only response by the Stephen Harper government to calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women was silence, there was understandable hope when, in December 2015, the federal government announced its intention to launch an independent national inquiry. In August 2016, the five commissioners and the inquiry’s terms of reference were announced.
There have been disagreements and concerns ever since, perhaps reaching a critical mass in July, when Commissioner Marilyn Poitras resigned, citing issues with the current structures of the inquiry as her reason. She rejected the colonialist approach to the design for the hearings, saying it has been tried before and not worked:
“You tell us your sad story and we’ll figure out what to do with you. . .
It doesn’t work.”
Fast on the heels of Poitras’s resignation, the Native Women’s Association of Canada called for a major restructuring of the process, using what it called a “Families First” model, and the Ontario Native Women’s Association wrote a letter withdrawing its support for the continuation of the inquiry in its current format and approach.
There seems little doubt that the inquiry structure has not built trust or relationships with the families of missing and murdered women, that communication with those families has been poor and that the timeline and budget do not reflect the reality of what it will take to hear the stories in a way that families need to tell them. Many families have said that the process does not feel safe to them, which is understandable given Canada’s track record of colonialization and all that followed that initial invasion of this land.
Perhaps the most recent example of the inquiry’s apparent lack of thoughtfulness about safety is the selection of Thunder Bay as a location for hearings this fall. As Renu Mandhane, the Chief Commission of the Ontario Human Rights Commission wrote about her visit to Thunder Bay last fall:
“I had the opportunity to speak with members of the Indigenous community. Community members told me about their concerns related to policing and child welfare, trafficking of Indigenous women and girls, and everyday racism in almost every facet of their lives including employment, housing, healthcare and retail.”
There has been no lack of symbolic gestures towards Indigenous peoples by the present government. That symbolism matters to some extent; however, as Robert Jago writes:
“The Trudeau administration has burdened Indigenous peoples with one symbolic gesture after another. As with the failed inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, these symbolic gestures have stripped important issues of urgency in the imagination of the non-Native public. Changing the name of the Langevin block does not restore clean drinking water to one First Nations home; seeing Justin Trudeau in his buckskin fringe acknowledging unceded Algonquin territory does not prevent one suicide. When it comes to “real change” on the ground, this government is short on results.”
Mandhane calls for leadership to address the serious issues of racism against Indigenous peoples in Thunder Bay; leadership driven by all members of the community. I hope she won’t mind if I paraphrase her comments slightly to fit the national arena in which the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is trying to find its way:
“During this difficult time, I call on all people who call [Canada] home to demand that their leaders address [missing and murdered Indigenous women] head on. Only with sustained leadership can we change the dialogue from denial and division to understanding and reconciliation.”