Chief Commissioner Marion Buller speaks at a community hearing.
Carolyn Bennett seems to have signalled a number of things Tuesday by awarding only a short-term extension to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
“They’re telling Indigenous women that their voices will be silenced,” said Jody Leon, an MMIWG activist and member of the Splatsin First Nation in B.C.
“If you can push a pipeline through why can’t you deal with a province?”
Bennett, the minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, said she couldn’t get unanimity from provinces and territories on putting more money and time into the inquiry.
So she pushed its two-year deadline back six months to April 2019 and gave them another six months to produce a final report by June 2019.
But Leon says that’s not enough time and shows the government’s priorities are skewed.
“I was at the national inquiry in Vancouver; I saw the complexity of the stories that were being told.”
The four remaining commissioners expressed “profound disappointment” in Bennett’s announcement, saying it did an “injustice” to families.
However, Suzan Fraser, a lawyer for a coalition of 20 families, says the minister seems to be showing concern for families by putting $21.3-million into aftercare – a complaint that has haunted the inquiry throughout.
“The families have been having (an) incredibly difficult (time) accessing aftercare and support,” Fraser said from Ontario.
Bernadette Smith of Winnipeg, whose sister Claudette Osborne disappeared in July 2008, was more pointed.
“They’ve had millions of dollars to do this work; families have had zero dollars,” Smith said via phone.
Smith, who did not testify at the $54-million inquiry when it was in Winnipeg in November 2017, didn’t support its official call in March to double its timeline or budget.
“When they say they’re disappointed, well, families are even more disappointed at what’s transpired,” Smith said of the inquiry’s performance to date.
The inquiry lost the support of Metis and Inuit women in March when both groups opposed an extension.
Tuesday, Melanie Omeniho, president of the Women of the Métis Nation, applauded Bennett’s decision to shorten the reins.
“We can’t wait two more years to start addressing some of the healing and trauma that some of these families have experienced,” she said from Edmonton.
Omeniho says commissioners have now been given enough time to conclude their evidence gathering and deliver strong recommendations for preventing further violence against Indigenous women and girls.
In the meantime, she says her group asked Bennett to fund their own research project into what women and girls need to help them survive and thrive after the inquiry cut off all contact with them.
“We need to get resources to families to help them build on changing this legacy,” she said.
Bennett said funding for the inquiry going forward would be “conditional” on a work plan, which sounds like code for a short financial and administrative leash.
Said mmiwg advocate Pam Palmater: “It seems to be sending the signal that you need to just finish this. They didn’t get an extra cent of extra money.”
Chief Commissioner Marion Buller told APTN News in April she’d used up her budget and would need a loan to hold broad hearings on racism, policing and child welfare after wrapping community hearings with families in Vancouver.
That barely caused a stir.
And Palmater says it only added financial incompetence to the list of mounting problems.
“I know the inquiry is trying to blame the federal government but it was the national inquiry folks that screwed all of this up. They were the ones that couldn’t get their act together for well over a year (due to staff turnover and scheduling issues),” she said.
Palmater says advocates like her supported holding the inquiry to the same length and breadth as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
But failing that is not on Ottawa, she said.
“The fact that it didn’t happens means you have to do the best with what you have in those two years and they wasted a year…and spent so much time on vacations and team building and dysfunction.”
Meanwhile, more turmoil could lie ahead with Commissioner Michele Audette saying she may resign in response to Bennett’s decision.
“I will allow myself the next few weeks to reflect, to analyze the decision, to express my personal opinion and to validate my future participation in the work of the National Inquiry,” Audette said in an emailed statement to reporters separate from the other three commissioners.