(Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, left, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Maryam Monsef, Status of Women minister at Tuesday morning’s news conference on the extension of the national MMIWG inquiry)
The head of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls says “political expediency” is at the heart of Canada’s decision to deny the commission an extra two years to complete its work.
“In seeking a two-year extension we were striking a balance between the urgency of the issues and the need to do this work thoroughly,” Buller said in a statement after the announcement.
“Now we believe political expediency has been placed before the safety of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQ people.”
On Tuesday Crown-Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett announced Canada will grant the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls only six months to complete its work.
The Inquiry’s commissioners are now mandated to submit a final report by April 30, 2019.
Read the inquiry’s statement here: Short extension injustice to families, survivors, and Canada
In March, the inquiry requested a two-year extension and an extra $50 million in funding to complete its mandate of reaching victims and families, and of examining the social, cultural, economic, institutional and historical roots of the ongoing violence against Indigenous women and girls.
The commission was initially given two years and $53.8 million to complete the Inquiry.
Tuesday’s announcement falls far short of the request, despite Bennett calling the crisis of violence against women and girls a “national tragedy” and a “top priority”.
Bennett says the decision to grant just a six-month extension is informed by the wishes of families and survivors, who Bennett repeated numerous times during Tuesday’s press conference wanted the Inquiry completed “in a timely way.”
She said the decision also came as a result of not being able to achieve a consensus among the provinces and territories to grant the Inquiry its requested two-year extension.
“Without an extension in terms of [the provinces and territories’] orders in council, we would have lost the national public inquiry,” Bennett explained.
She would not disclose which provinces or territories rejected the two-year extension, saying the intergovernmental discussions are “private conversations”.
Bennett said the decision to further finance the inquiry to complete its mandate won’t be hers, but that any decisions will come from further discussions with the commissioners.
While any new money for the inquiry still has to be worked out, Tuesday’s announcement included almost $50 million in government funding for programs and services identified in the inquiry’s interim report last November.
Buller told APTN News in an interview that reaction from families and survivors was swift, and that many are “devastated” and were “expecting more in the way of time and resources to address the issues that they have fought so long and hard for.”
Buller said families and survivors are “upset that politics have been put ahead of our women and girls once again.”
“I know right now that we will not be able to have our regional hearings across Canada in each of the provinces and territories,” she explained.
“We have found across Canada that there are regional issues that need to be addressed and issues that come under provincial and territorial jurisdiction specifically, like child welfare off reserve, like education, healthcare and policing.
“We won’t be able to have those regional hearings because of the lack of time.”
Buller doesn’t buy Bennett’s claim that families and survivors don’t support the Inquiry’s requested two-year extension and said the commissioners have “heard differently.”
She also said she’s “disappointed” that provinces and territories have reportedly not supported the inquiry’s request.
As part of the government’s announced funding, Indigenous Services Canada will invest $21.3 million to expand health support services to for families and survivors who participate in the Inquiry, as well as those impacted by the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Another $5.42 million will be invested in 2019 and 2020 to extend the timeframe for the Department of Justice’s Family Information Liaison Units and community-based organizations to support families beyond the life of the Inquiry.
The feds are also accepting the inquiry’s recommendation for a commemoration fund and will provide $10 million over two years through Status of Women Canada to “honour the lives and legacies of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and LGBTQ2S individuals.”
And $9.6 million will be invested over five years to support the RCMP’s new National Investigative Standards and Practices Unit, which includes oversight of investigations into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef reiterated Bennett’s emphasis on putting families first.
“We said from the beginning that we wouldn’t wait until the end of the inquiry to act, and as Minister Bennett said: Ultimately this is about preventing tragedies like this from happening. This is about ensuring that survivors and their families have the supports they need —that the legal systems and the justice systems in place are responsive.”
Conservative Indigenous Affairs critic Cathy McLeod said the Liberals “clearly” want the Inquiry completed before the 2019 election, but hopes “political calculus” did not weigh on the decision.
“At the end of the day, this needs to bring closure and peace to the families and it needs to give us a path forward,” she said, adding she’s waiting to hear more details on what additional funds the government will provide and how the commissioners will use the extra six months.
“I’ve been hearing a lot of concerns in terms of the red tape, the bureaucracy, the phone numbers that haven’t worked, so to give more time and it’s more of the same — that’s not effective for the families,” she said. “They now have a deadline.”
The NDP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Buller said the inquiry will “hear from families and survivors who have already registered with us,” and that the commissioners “know that we have to do more research.
“We know that we have to support our research team in filling in the blanks of the work that has to be done and the information that we have to receive.”
But she’s not optimistic that they will be able to reach as many of the most marginalized Indigenous women in Canada as they would like, such as those who are incarcerated or living in shelters.
“We’ll have to go back and rethink our strategy regarding the more marginalized communities because we need to do more work there to build on the work that we’ve already done.”
Buller said the commission has “a full agenda” and will “be working to fill it out as best we can within the existing extension period.”