Federal government’s long-sought inquiry into missing, murdered Native girls, women enters first phase

GATINEAU, QUEBEC—Saying that those touched by the tragedy of Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women and girls have waited long enough for an inquiry, the federal Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the first phase of a national inquiry.

“The victims deserve justice; their families, an opportunity to heal and to be heard,” said Prime Minister Trudeau in a speech before a special assembly of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in Gatineau, Quebec announcing the start of the long-sought inquiry.

“We heard the long anticipated announcement that the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls will begin following two months of consultations with families of the victims that began this week in Ottawa,” said AFN Regional Chief Isadore Day in a statement. “The prime minister said, ‘The victims deserve justice, their families deserve an opportunity to be heard and to heal. We must work together to put an end to this ongoing tragedy’.”

Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee said that he “applauds the federal government’s announcement of an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women and girls in Canada.”

“Both the Liberals and the NDP have been calling for an inquiry,” noted Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes. “This is certainly a step in the right direction.”

“An inquiry will bring some closure for families of our murdered and missing indigenous women and girls,” said Grand Council Chief Madahbee. “It will also show that racism is alive and well in Canada. Solutions need to be brought forward and we believe that public education and education in schools is one of the answers to this problem.”

The Union of Ontario Indians has already had several public education initiatives in the areas of Indian residential schools and the events surrounding Ipperwash.

“We have produced books, videos and booklets on events that have happened in our history,” said Chief Madahbee. “We aren’t waiting for anyone else to teach our history, we went ahead and did it ourselves.”

“Earlier this year, the Union of Ontario Indians Policy and Communications Department created the “We are all Treaty People” teachers kit that ties the Ontario curriculum to our history and the treaty relationship,” noted Chief Madahbee.

“Educational resources like the teachers’ kit that bring about the discussion of the treaty relationship at an early age,” said Chief Madahbee. “We are in the process of translating this resource into French, as well as producing a secondary school teachers resource that will talk about the relationship between indigenous peoples in Canada and settlers. We believe by having these conversations at an early age will help eliminate racism and give all Canadians a better understanding of First Nations issues.”

“I think we are going to need to make sure that there is a clear mandate,” said Ms. Hughes. “It is important that families can share how they feel and share as well in the setting of the guidelines as part of the process.” Ms. Hughes noted that the inclusion of those entities that have been assisting the families of the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls is also critical to creating a successful national inquiry.

Another welcome announcement made at the assembly by the prime minister, overshadowed by the long anticipated announcement of the national inquiry, was the announcement that the federal government would be lifting the two percent cap on program transfers to the First Nations even as the economic and political pressure on federal finances has dominated the media in recent weeks. Finance Minister Bill Morneau conceded just the day before that the promised Liberal middle-class tax cut will cost more than originally planned.

“As you know, that limit has been in place for nearly 20 years,” said Prime Minister Trudeau, who went on to promise his government would remove the cap in thier first budget.  “It hasn’t kept up with the demographic realities of your communities, nor the actual costs of program delivery,” he told the assembly.

The Liberal government has promised to change the channel on relations with the First Nations and that tone is apparently being backed up with substance, beginning with the presence of the prime minister and many of his key cabinet ministers at the event.

“The Ontario Chiefs’ Caucus had unprecedented access to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Justice Minister Jody Wilson Raybould,” noted Regional Chief Day. “The Women’s Caucus met with Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu. We heard first hand from these three ministers on how First Nation families and leadership will be fully involved in planning for the national inquiry. We also heard that the federal government plans to rely upon the groundwork laid out by the Chiefs of Ontario’s ‘Who Is She’ campaign.

Although there has been some criticism of the lack of notice provided to families of missing and murdered indigenous woman of the planned announcement, the Liberals have been foreshadowing the announcement since long before their election win in October.

During the special assembly Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu detailed the first phase of the forthcoming missing and murdered inquiry.

Minister Wilson-Raybould, one of two Liberal cabinet ministers with indigenous roots, said the government will consult the families of victims over the next two months for their input on the inquiry’s shape and its goals. “We will listen clearly to their voices,” she said. “No inquiry, as we know, can undo what happened nor can it restore what we have lost. But it can help us find ways forward because we know, as a country, we can and must do better.”

Among the consultative efforts will be a website that will allow Canadians to provide input online and learn more about the process, helping to determine the inquiry’s terms of reference, said Minister Bennett, who hinted the inquiry could last longer and cost more than the two-year, $40-million originally projected. “We are going to go out and listen to what people say this needs to look like, and we will then have to apply what budget that will take,” she said.

“First the facts, and then we will see.”

Perhaps an even more expensive promise made before the AFN and foreshadowed during the election was to implement the 94 recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Two young girls from Wikwemikong who had attended a youth summit on climate change in Sweden before the Paris summit, Autumn Peltier and Francesca Pheasant, spoke and sang “from the heart” to the assembly on climate change, touching everyone at the assembly. “There was not a dry eye in the Assembly after Autumn sang the Ojibwe Water Song,” said Regional Chief Day. “Everyone was reminded that the work we do as leaders is for the next generation and the ones to come.”

Although caution was still very much a by-word admitted some local elders and First Nations leaders privately, the tone of the current dialogue between Canada’s indigenous peoples and the federal government has undisputedly changed.

“I’m thrilled to hear about the inquiry today,” said long time Island Native rights activist Izzy Pangowish. “However I do not like the Phase 1 and Phase 2, meaning they’re willing to spend $40 million dollars to launch the inquiry in early 2016. Why is there only going to be $40 million to spend? There should be more money to be spent. We are talking about women missing, murdered, gone since early as 1980. They say there 1,182 women missing. They’re wrong there are more than 2,000 missing. Because of former Prime Minister Harper’s failure to acknowledge this matter, the numbers increased. It is because of our governments the women are missing, now they have to make things right again. Not because we are First Nations people, but because we are human-beings like everyone else. All (the missing) women should be found and reunited with their families and the deceased women should be brought home to a proper resting area.”

“This week’s AFN Special Chiefs Assembly represents the first step on a long journey of hope, a prosperous path leading out of poverty and despair,” said Regional Chief Day. “Again, there will be much rewarding work ahead for our leadership in Ontario. We have a great responsibility to ensure that both the government and the bureaucracy acts upon this renewed relationship. Our Peoples—from our children to our elders—have waited far too long for this day to happen. We cannot, must not, let them down. In the spirit of our ancestors who signed the treaties to share the land, we will finally secure our rightful place in Canada.”

The national chief’s address was also upbeat in tone.

“In his mandate letter to each and every cabinet minister, Prime Minister Trudeau wrote it is time for a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Bellegarde in his address. “Very powerful words.”