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How would a national inquiry into missing and murdered native women work?

Experts say mandate requires careful consideration

Derek Nepinak: We need a national conversation.


Derek Nepinak: We need a national conversation.

It can't take years. It can't be an excuse to avoid immediate action. It must be national. And it can't rehash all the root causes of violence without offering practical solutions.

That is the picture emerging of a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, an inquiry buoyed by a sense of inevitability even though Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly rejected the idea.

As premiers, federal opposition leaders and others renewed calls for an inquiry Wednesday, indigenous experts have started to turn their minds to the nuts and bolts of how such an inquiry would work, who could head it and how to avoid generating yet another report that goes largely ignored.

DRAFTING a mandate would be the most difficult part of calling an inquiry into violence against indigenous women, but choosing a commissioner or co-commissioners would likely be the next trickiest decision. Among the considerations are regional and language balance, experience with legal proceedings and social issues and a commissioner's credibility among indigenous leaders. Several people interviewed by the Winnipeg Free Press favoured two female commissioners, one indigenous and one non-indigenous. Here are some names being floated.


  • Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond: A Cree woman, who is British Columbia's tough-as-nails, Harvard-educated children's advocate. She's been critical of the low level of services and funding for aboriginal children in care and to the apathy about the issue of violence against girls and women. She may be reluctant to take on the role of inquiry commissioner. In the past, after delivering withering reports on the state of aboriginal child welfare in her province, she has declined to meet with indigenous leaders because she considered another meeting a roadblock to action.
  • Sheila Fraser: The widely feared former auditor general of Canada is among the most trusted Canadians. She could give the inquiry significant legitimacy among non-indigenous Canadians. A francophone, she has also conducted damning audits of the federal Indian Affairs department and on-reserve services and is familiar with federal politics.
  • Michelle Audette: Audette is president of the Native Women's Organization of Canada, which has taken the lead on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women thanks to its Sister's in Spirit research and policy project. The Innu woman, who has worked for the government of Quebec, is planning to run for the Liberals, which could preclude her as a possible commissioner.
  • Louise Mandell: British Columbia-based Mandell is one of the country's best aboriginal and treaty-rights lawyers and one of the big thinkers in the indigenous legal community. She recently stepped back from day-to-day litigation at her firm.

The most difficult part of calling an inquiry would be drafting its mandate -- laying out the limits and focus of the hearings, the research and the recommendations.

A mandate that's too narrow, perhaps focusing only on how police investigate violence against aboriginal women, risks alienating many who believe the role of an inquiry must be to help reverse the historic causes of aboriginal poverty, addictions, abuse and isolation.

A broader mandate could cover gender discrimination in the Indian Act, the economic rights of women on reserve, the inability of RCMP and the courts to properly protect vulnerable women and girls from exploitation, the frequent failure of the child-welfare system to curb family breakdown, rampant sexual abuse and addictions.

A mandate that's too broad risks repeating much of the work of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which took five years and millions of dollars and is still the most complete but unproductive look at Canada's colonial legacy. And a very big mandate risks obscuring the specific issues of indigenous women, nearly 1,200 of whom have been slain or gone missing since 1980.

Wab Kinew, the director of indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg, said he wants an inquiry with a broad mandate and a requirement to deliver a set of recommendations against which all current and future government programs can be judged.

He said when Prime Minister Stephen Harper touts more funding for police and tougher laws, or when Manitoba Premier Selinger responds with a pledge of programs to address poverty, they are generally playing for votes, making it tough for people to know if those promises do any good.

"How do I know what is the right approach?" he asked. "(An inquiry) will provide an independent benchmark by which I can measure all actions."

Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said the mandate of an inquiry must demand recommendations that can be acted upon immediately for real results. He said recommendations for more police and stiffer sentences won't help.

"That is not the solution," said Nepinak. "We have to be willing to delve deeper than that."

The country's premiers have called for a national inquiry -- most recently and forcefully, Saskatchewan's Conservative Brad Wall. It was a call the premiers repeated at their annual gathering Wednesday in Charlottetown, which raised the question of whether the premiers could go it alone, sidestepping Harper and launching their own process.

Many experts canvassed by the Free Press agree an inquiry must be national in scope and have the full participation of the federal government since it's Ottawa that is constitutionally responsible for aboriginals and funds the bulk of on-reserve policing, child welfare and education.

"I can't see this working without a strong commitment from the federal government to change these pathways of aboriginal girls and women and do something very different than we've been doing," said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, BC's representative for children and youth.

Turpel-Lafond is lukewarm about the growing momentum for a national inquiry, saying just how one would work requires more thought, especially if it risks delaying some of the obvious and practical ways to help women and girls that experts know work. She said anything that sparks a national debate on the issue is helpful, but discussion in the media and among politicians must translate into improvements to funding and services.

"On the ground, is this the pre-eminent issue? Are we doing everything we can to change the pathways for women and girls? I don't see that," she said. "It's been at the bottom of the heap for some time."

It's difficult to imagine a speedy process. The Royal Commission, established following the 1990 Oka Crisis, took five years to deliver its massive reports.

A commission of inquiry would need to travel the country, much as the Royal Commission did in the 1990s. And, its process would be expected to be based on indigenous cultural practices, where proceedings are built around traditional ceremonies, where oral evidence is valued and where indigenous concepts of restorative justice are paramount.

If nothing else, a national inquiry would help fade what's becoming a permanent stain on the relationship between First Nations leaders and the federal government, a lingering problem that threatens to taint all other issues such as resource-sharing and governance reforms.

Nepinak said an inquiry could be the next national conversation Canadians have about their history.

"It helped society evolve, and I think that is where the value is in an inquiry," said Nepinak. "Until we find a government willing to work with us, the culture of denial is going subsist."

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