Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett is travelling to major cities until mid-February to meet with groups that include victims’ family members, loved ones and survivors, using the information they provide to “design” the inquiry. This comes on the heels of the federal government’s decision to support an inquiry post-election.

As Bennett arrived in Vancouver, frontline advocates for the Downtown Eastside expressed concern that there is too much focus on families and not enough on helping potential victims and the systems that fail them.

Members of the Women’s Memorial March Committee gathered in Vancouver on Tuesday to talk about what they believe should happen as talks about the inquiry continue.

Committee chairwoman Fay Blaney, a survivor of violence, has been pushing for an inquiry for many years as well as working to help women in the area of the city where serial killer Robert Pickton notoriously preyed on vulnerable women.

“The status of Indigenous women has to be at the top of the agenda,” Blaney said. “We experience violence not only in our own communities but we experience it from the broader population.”

Blaney said she is concerned that the government is “privileging and prioritizing blood relatives” of victims during its meetings, including its consultation in Prince George on Friday.

She added that she is worried that the timeline for the consultations is too short and that women’s groups with important information are getting pushed aside in favour of family members who are clamouring to be heard after years of being silenced.

“Right now we’re competing. It’s like the women’s groups are needing to be heard, and the families are really needing to be heard,” she said.

“We’re really concerned that we’re being denied access because we’re not direct family members.”

Committee member Mabel Nipshank added that societal problems stemming from colonization are not getting enough attention from the government. These include the treatment of Indigenous women as sexual service providers.

“You don’t know what it’s like until you walk in our shoes,” she said. “I would get approached by johns while I was walking my children to school. That’s just part, a very small part, of what Indigenous women experience on a daily basis.”

Evelyne Youngchief was also present and spoke of the same systemic issues and assumptions. She said after losing many friends on the Downtown Eastside, meeting with Bennett is a “really hard” but important step.

Downtown Eastside victim services worker Carol Martin was also emotional as she looked down at an extensive list of women who have gone missing from the area.

“I want you to remember that these women had names, they had an identity, they mean something to us.”

“We knew them, we celebrated birthdays with them, we honoured them, we cried with them, we ate with them, they attended healing circles.”

Several of the committee members who are part of a separate coalition on missing and murdered Indigenous women, formed after B.C.’s inquiry into the issue, also met with Bennett on Tuesday before the full meeting on Wednesday.

The pre-inquiry consultations began in early January and are scheduled to wrap up in Ottawa on Feb. 15. Upcoming stops include Edmonton, Iqaluit, Toronto and Saskatoon.