What You Should Know About the MMIW Inquiry

mmiw highway of tears

The national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) officially starts today.

Less than two years ago, the killing of hundreds of indigenous women and girls wasn’t “really high on [the] radar” of Canada’s Prime Minister.

Yet here we are, with a new government chanting a very different tune, kicking off a national inquiry with a budget bigger than promised. But the long awaited hearings are not yet about to start, warned the Chairwoman Marion Buller. “I just hope the public expectation is somewhat qualified by the fact that tomorrow we’re starting at square one,” she told the CBC on Wednesday.

Here is a list of the most important things you should know before they actually start:

What exactly is the Inquiry About?

Indigenous women and girls disappear and get murdered at a much greater rate than any other group in Canada. It’s been like this for at least thirty years and it’s been happening across the entire country. Yes, it is a proven fact and no, it can’t be explained away by high criminality and poverty on reserves.

In 2014, a report published by the RCMP brought this alarming fact to the public’s attention. It documented 1017 homicides of indigenous women between 1980 and 2012. This is 4.5 times what has been recorded for the general population.

For the same period, the RCMP’s counted 164 unsolved disappearances of indigenous women. However, even this alarming number is probably a gross underestimation, considering the general distrust between police forces and native communities.

The accounts of police forces failing to follow criminal leads or to investigate suspicious deaths are countless. CBC investigated 34 cases filed as accidents or suicides, despite the families of victims being convinced otherwise. They found signs of foul play for many of them. A Globe & Mail investigation found that indigenous women were seven times more likely to be murdered by a serial killer than non-indigenous women.

The real number of murdered aboriginal women and girls between 1980 and 2012 could reach around 4000, according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

What will the Inquiry do?

The Commission’s mission is to investigate the systemic causes of the high rates of violence against indigenous women and girls and to make recommendations about how to remove them. They will look into underlying factors for the greater aggression and vulnerability of aboriginal women, such as economic, historical, institutional, sociological or cultural factors.

In order to do so, the commission will reach out to families, survivors and community members to hear their “experience and views, including recommendations” and require the testimonies of whoever they see fit. It might also set up regional committees formed of loved-ones and survivors to address specific local situations and issues.

It will review existing reports and research about the issue at hands and related matters.

The federal government will allocate two years and $53.86 million to the process. An interim report should be produced in Fall 2017 and a final one by the end of 2018.

What can the commission do?

The commission is supposed to act completely independently of the government. As per the National Inquiry Act, it has subpoena power, meaning it can legally oblige people to testify or hand over documents.

Provinces and territories have also agreed to let the Inquiry address matters that fall outside federal jurisdiction, like child welfare and policing.

However, the Inquiry cannot determine any civil or criminal responsibility nor lead to accusations. Furthermore, it was announced in early August that commissioners can’t force police to reopen cases, to the disappointment of many families who are still waiting for answers.

Who is on the commission?

The government appointed five indigenous commissioners to lead the inquiry. They are from different corners of Canada, but none are from Atlantic Canada. Four have careers in law, one is a key figure of aboriginal activism in Quebec who has also served as deputy minister of Quebec’s status of women.

The chief commissioner, Marion Buller, was the first indigenous female judge of BC’s provincial court. She has advanced law studies and a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. She was a pioneer of numerous battles for aboriginal rights, including the formation of the First Nations Court of British Columbia in 2006. Thanks to her, First Nations’ members in BC can now choose to be judged by this court focused on rehabilitation and reconciliation with the community. She lives in Port Coquitlam (BC) but is still member of the Mistawasis band in Saskatchewan.

What to watch out for?

The terms of reference set for the Inquiry make it clear that the focus will be on prevention and solutions. Advocates and families of victims want that, of course. But they also want answers and accountability.

The negligence and mishandling of indigenous cases by the police is a key issue. However, the terms of reference do not make any specific mention of investigating police forces. Instead, they talk about “systemic causes” and “institutional policies and practices”.

Many worry that those broad terms will allow commissioners to stay clear of touchy subjects that might ruffle too many feathers, like direct criticism of police work.

Indeed, there is no shortage of systemic causes and Institutional policies contributing to the vulnerability of indigenous women. The Indian Act, centuries of under-funded health, education and justice services in indigenous communities, residential schools, reserves… pretty much everything that happened since 1492.

We don’t need the national inquiry to tell us that Canada has treated First Nations like shit and is still doing so in many aspects. We might need it to tell us why a certain case was closed or if the disappearance of a native child is treated with the seriousness it deserves.

The Minister of Indigenous affairs, Carolyn Bennett, said that the terms of reference are so broad only to give the maximum latitude and independence to the commissioners. Let’s hope they use this latitude to fully address the faults in the functioning of our courts and police work, and not to skirt over the less comfortable issues.

Another thing we should be looking for is who will really cooperate with the Inquiry. Who will demand to be heard, who will come willingly and above all, who –if anyone- will be subpoenaed into it.

Chief Commissioner Buller has expressed to CBC that she is “cautiously optimistic” about getting full cooperation from the police. Past evidence suggests that police forces are not very receptive to being investigated, but well, there’s a first for everything.

A recent statement by Commissioner Michèle Audette also signaled a possible development for Quebec.

Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, Ghislain Picard wanted Quebec to have its own inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women. The Minister of Justice had refused, pleading that the emotional cost of testifying twice for families and victims was too high. However, Audette says that a provincial inquiry could coexist with the national one, if it had a clearly different mandate.

She said this to La Presse on August 31st, so we’ll have to see if anyone will push on the door she just opened. Maybe, optimistically, this will lead to a more transparent way of looking into the abuse of indigenous women by police forces in our part of the country. Enquête’s uncovering of the behaviour of SQ agents in Val-d’Or certainly made it clear that the issue needs to be addressed, and the police-investigating-police method we’re currently using is not good enough.

* Featured image via WikiMedia Commons

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