Lawyer Breen Ouellette conducts testimony of witness Jamie Lee Hamilton in April 2018.
Lawyer Breen Ouellette said it wasn’t the subject matter or long hours that pushed him to resign from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
It was a “serious loss of confidence” in leadership – both at the top of the inquiry and with federal officials in charge.
“It’s speeding towards failure,” Ouellette, a Métis lawyer from Saskatchewan, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Ouellette is the sixth lawyer to resign from the inquiry but the first to issue a news release about his departure.
His exit brings to 24 the total number of people that have quit or been fired.
The inquiry confirmed Ouellette resigned on June 21.
“As you can appreciate, and as with all organizations, staffing does not remain constant, especially in an environment dealing with difficult subject matter where many staff work extended hours,” spokesperson Nadine Gros-Louis said in a statement Tuesday.
It’s another blow for the federally funded probe that is trying to uncover the reasons more than 1,200 Indigenous women and girls in Canada have died or gone missing over the past 20 years.
The organization has been wracked by upheaval since it was formed in September 2016.
I want to say again that it was a great honour to assist more than 65 family members and survivors of violence who shared their testimony with the National Inquiry.
— Breen Ouellette (@BreenOuellette) July 1, 2018
Ouellette, who was on staff for about 14 months, said he lost confidence, in part, because he “was seeing a pattern of interference from the federal government.”
And he’s not the only one.
Many family members, Indigenous leaders and advocates have called for a reset and for the commissioners to step down over what they say is a lack of transparency, communication and effectiveness.
Most problematic have been complaints about aftercare. Families and witnesses claim they have been short-changed on counselling and wellness support, and have had to wait and sometimes battle for services.
The four remaining commissioners have pushed back saying the federal government and its controls have hamstrung their work despite them being an independent inquiry.
Ouellette says he can supply more details but needs permission to speak.
“Will the National inquiry allow me to share my reasons openly in the public interest?” he tweeted Tuesday.
He said commissioners did refer to federal interference in their November 2017 interim report.
“It wasn’t labelled interference; it was labelled as an inability to operate because of problems created by privy council office with respect to funding, flow of money, the hiring of staff – those sorts of things,” he said in a telephone interview from Vancouver.
Ouellete says the short extension granted June 5 by Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett also hurt the inquiry.
“You’ve essentially got a national inquiry which has to try to please…one of the parties,” he said.
Most concerning, said Ouellette, is the testimony he has heard about the child welfare system and how he thinks that’s related to the inquiry being under-funded.
“She [Bennett] is protecting the provinces that are threatened by the national inquiry,” he said, noting he can’t name them and neither has Bennett.
“Are the provinces and territories that oppose this further extension those provinces and territories which have the worst records for abuses [in the child welfare and foster care system]?”
All provinces and territories in Canada are partners in the inquiry with the federal government and, as such, control its destiny.
APTN sent emails seeking comment from Bennett and the Privy Council Office but did not receive an immediate response.
Ouellette says Ottawa’s plans to transfer $1.4 billion over the next six years for Indigenous foster care are “motivation for bureaucrats” to maintain the status quo.
So he was disappointed when the commissioners agreed to carry on with the time and money they have left.
“Our mandate is to look at all forms of systemic violence against women and girls, and to take children from a mother is one of the most violent things you can do to a woman,” he said.
Gros-Louis said the inquiry “continues to make significant progress thanks to the hard work and dedication of staff [while being] supported by family members and survivors.”
But Ouellette said another person was close to leaving.
“I do know that there’s at least one other staff member that’s on the cusp of resigning,” he said.