Public Inquiry

Liberals reverse Harper’s legacy of denial, link colonialism to MMIW

Promise kept as Minister Carolyn Bennett announces first phase of public inquiry
Photo: Jen Castro

After years of advocacy, victims’ families today learned that the federal government will finally call an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

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Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett made the announcement today after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an historic address to the Assembly of First Nations meetings in Gatineau, Quebec.

Wearing an Honouring Our Sisters T-shirt and holding an eagle feather, Bennett was flanked by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Minister of Status of Women Patricia Hajdu.

"It is a call to acknowledge that this is an issue for all Canadians, one that touches us all, no matter what our socioeconomic status, our gender, our culture, or our religion," said Bennett.

"It is a call to replace the rhetoric with effective and comprehensive solutions, and it is a call to ensure that we're doing all we can to prevent future injustices."

A two-phase process to the national inquiry was announced, the first of which will be the "design phase." This first phase will set the tone and parameters, terms of reference and possibly identify commissioners.

"I know that renewing our relationship is an ambitious goal, but I am equally certain that it is one we can, and will, achieve if we work together" - Justin Trudeau

Families of the missing and murdered will play a vital role in the inquiry, Bennett said, as will Indigenous ceremonies. There will also be an online survey for all Canadians to complete, and social media will be used as an instrument to join the conversation, based on the hashtags #MMIW" and #OurInquiry.

The first phase will take as long as it needs to get it right, says Bennett.

The second phase will include the inquiry itself, which Bennett says they hope will be announced in spring 2016.

For years, a national inquiry has been a top priority for many Indigenous families. However, time and time again their calls were met with continued resistance from the Conservative government and its former leader, Stephen Harper.

During the election campaign, Trudeau promised that his government would launch a national inquiry within 100 days of taking office.

In spring 2014, the RCMP reported that between 1980 and 2012 there were 1,181 recorded cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

At the time the report was released, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said the high number of cases surprised him. It was a far higher number than that cited by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, who until that point could confirm just 582 cases, though they believed there were many more.

"Some link [the issue] to the long-term impact of racism, sexism, colonialism and the devastating impacts of residential schools on Indigenous men, women and communities," Bennett said. "Indigenous women continue to live in poorer socioeconomic conditions than non-Indigenous women, which means they are at a heightened risk of experiencing violence."

The national inquiry comes with a pledge that the new Liberal government will reignite Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people.

In his opening address at the AFN’s special chiefs assembly — the first time a prime minister has attended the meeting since Pierre Trudeau was in power — Justin Trudeau reiterated this commitment, promising "real change."

"I know that renewing our relationship is an ambitious goal, but I am equally certain that it is one we can, and will, achieve if we work together," he said. "This is a responsibility I take seriously, and I have instructed my government to do the same."

In his remarks, he cited five priorities:

  • creating a national public inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada;
  • making significant investments in First Nation education;
  • lifting the two per cent cap on First Nation funding (first imposed by a Liberal government in 1996);
  • implementing the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, starting with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and
  • reviewing all legislation unilaterally imposed on Indigenous peoples by the previous government.

Trudeau said he knows there are more than these five priorities to embark upon.

"From partnering with First Nations as we review and monitor major resource development projects to providing significant new funding to help promote, preserve, and protect Indigenous languages and cultures," said Trudeau, "in every instance, we need your help."

Meanwhile, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said she fully supports a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, as does NDP leader Tom Muclair.

Next week, Trudeau is expected to meet with Indigenous leaders from five national organizations: the AFN, Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, Native Women’s Association of Canada, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and Métis National Council.

The meeting will occur around the same time the Truth and Reconciliation Commission releases its final report on Dec. 15.

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