The trash fire that is the National Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry (MMIWGI) shows no sign of maturing into a functional entity.
Over last week alone, we saw the questionable internal email of newly-appointed Executive Director Debbie Reid, advising her beleaguered staff there’s a new sheriff town and they had better turn their focus to protecting the four commissioners from criticism. Eight staff have resigned or been fired since she took over the reins.
Next, a Twitter feud among those few still paying attention, with Reid defending herself at the centre, followed by the resignation of MMIWGI lawyer Joseph Murdoch-Flowers, the latest in a long line of Indigenous lawyers to exit in less than a year, reportedly because he dared stand up for the rapidly-burning-out staff in an untenable workplace.
Pay attention, folks. It’s so easy to forget the people who resigned the previous week—lawyer Karen Snowshoe and Yukon & Northwest Community Liaison officer Melissa Carlick—let alone this past year. On November 25, the Inquiry advised the disheartened people of Rankin Inlet that their hearing will be rescheduled from December to “a later date.”
I had sincerely hoped when the Inquiry published a Request for Proposal for communications professionals—government-speak for a call out for bidders on contracts—help would arrive for these messaging hiccups and larger issues that have hamstrung them for months. Despite hiring an international public relations firm, nothing appears to have changed.
In fact, things appear even worse.
Federal Ministers Carolyn Bennett (Indigenous and Northern Affairs), Patti Hajdu (Status of Women), and Jodi Wilson-Raybould (Justice) announced the creation of the MMIWGI December 8, 2015, amid great hope and expectation. Their collective pride was tangible on this day when they could stand back and watch their efforts bringing the Inquiry into being finally realized.
However, the way forward hasn’t just been a little bumpy—it’s been a dirt road with huge washed out sections and detours that stop at the edge of cliffs with no explanation. The map is faded and illegible, if a map ever existed. The federal government has stood nervously by, not wanting to intervene for fear of accusations of patriarchy and retrenched colonialism, but waiting for a sign the moment has come where they have no choice. I think that moment is now.
Plagued by abysmal communication strategy, resignations, firings, inadequate technology, media miscues, allegations of regional favoritism, and ongoing complaints of poor emotional supports from those families who do manage to get through to the MMIWGI—all have combined to place the commissioners under intense scrutiny by Indigenous communities while much of non-Native Canada pays little attention except to cry at the prospect of increasing Inquiry funding using their tax dollars and extending the December 2018 deadline.
I’m slowly starting to accept there are more parallels between this Inquiry and British Columbia’s failed 2011-2012 Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry than I can count. That commission floundered under very restrictive terms of reference.
The key difference between the two commissions is in B.C., the failure to catch a now-convicted killer formed the basis for examination, while the MMIWGI represents a far larger, ongoing national crisis affecting upwards of 4,000 women and girls—the direct product of colonialism, poverty, and racism.
On November 1, 2017, the MMIWGI submitted an interim report which offered a glimpse into the huge scope of the challenge faced. In fairness, it is a Herculean task to stop the violence, determine its causes, and assess the investigation of each case in a meaningful way.
In BC, families were denied legal support and psychological counselling was inadequate and short term. The commission suffered from a schizophrenic inability to decide whether it should explore police wrong-doing or present an academic study of the tragic life circumstances of the women and failed at both. Families, several legal counsel, court staff, and police emerged traumatized and disgusted. Sound familiar?
More and more, this MMIWGI resembles BC’s disastrous commission, but for different reasons.
When asked if I thought this Inquiry could end up the raging failure of the BC MWCI (Missing Women Commission of Inquiry), I’d been certain in my denial, certain in my disdain for B.C.’s former Liberal government and their intent to keep the MWCI from becoming anything more than an exercise in empty rhetoric and window dressing. Certain that the national inquiry would present a comprehensive, well-resourced, future-focused approach to ending the tragedy. Certain that Canada cared about what’s happening to these poor women and girls.
I do believe the architects of the MMIWGI truly intended to solve this tragedy, but I don’t know which is worse: A Provincial government that drafted ridiculous terms of reference for a BC inquiry they never wanted to succeed or a Federal government standing silently by hoping the MMIWGI can sort themselves out of their different, but equally challenging colonialism-based terms of reference.
I'm not Indigenous. I can only imagine what it feels like to see my country and family ravaged by poverty and racism. I haven’t lost a family member to this tragedy, but I am mad as hell. In the darkest places in my heart, I fear this has been an elaborate ruse. Perhaps the Trudeau government intended to empower Indigenous people to run this MMIWGI free from colonial interference, but if that were the case, why were they not allowed to craft their own terms of reference? Could this be changed? If there was ever a time to scrap the ill-conceived, genocidal, and racist Indian Act, it is now.
Or, perhaps the Trudeau government feared exactly what seems to have happened would happen: That the very diversity that makes Indigenous communities and Canada itself so unique has crippled this Inquiry, prompting in-fighting and internal battles between those viewed as sell-outs to the colonial interests and those determined to hold fast to their own self-government and time-honoured ways.
As a non-Native person, it isn’t up to me to determine or say which is better or who should be in charge. I don’t get to impose my interpretation of their crisis. European settlers swept in a few hundred years ago and ran rough-shod over their country, which is why we’re even having this conversation today. I don’t offer an opinion because the one thing I do know is there are many, many things I don’t know.
I do know there are Indigenous people who have suggestions and ideas on how to fix this MMIWGI. Perhaps it’s time to listen to them and hold a summit of all the players on this file. A new Inquiry structure that everyone can work with must be hammered out, from new terms of reference right down to who answers the phones when families call seeking assistance.
Once the federal government is convinced of a workable model, more money and time must be made available to do this work properly. Pay for a functional, competent executive of Indigenous people. Pay for professional communications staff. Pay for fully supported psychological workers and MMIWGI staff who will not burn out in an inadequate workplace. Build the structure out and then staff it appropriately.
Otherwise, I fear this MMIWGI will suffer the same fate of BC’s MWCI; set up to fail, not end this racism and violence against Indigenous women and girls, producing a bunch of recommendations never implemented, while Canada continues her apathetic, racist ways.