Lessons from Canada: National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

To Canada’s credit, it created a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, a two-year, $53.8 million effort listen to families’ stories and get to root causes of the violence.

This effort is well beyond anything tried in the United States and we could learn a lot from this example, both from its ambitious scope and its shortcomings. The process has been rocky.

Native women and girls disproportionately suffer from violence, according to the Inquiry’s website.

Aboriginal women in Canada report rates of violence, including domestic violence and sexual assault, 3.5 times higher than non-Aboriginal women.

Young Aboriginal women are five times more likely than other Canadian women of the same age to die of violence. Between 1997 and 2000, the rate of homicide for Aboriginal women was almost seven times higher than the rate for non-Aboriginal women.

The Inquiry has three goals: 1. Finding the truth, 2. Honouring the truth, and 3) Giving life to the truth as a path to healing.

The Canadian government began this work with a lengthy community process to decide on the design and scope of the Inquiry. The Inquiry officially began Sept. 1, led by five commissioners, all with First Nations roots and/or a history of First Nation’s advocacy.

The process is in trouble. This month, one of the commissioners resigned, according to a July 11 story in the Globe and Mail. Soon after, “the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA), which had intervenor status at the inquiry, sent an open letter to commissioners saying it could not support the format and approach.”

What can the United States learn from this? For one, this work is incredibly difficult and brings up pain and trauma that takes incredible skill to navigate. A second and related point is that the process is key — the means and ends are inseparable. The respect, communication, and ceremonies used to start the healing process are the healing process.

This work cannot be rushed. Trying to put a timeline on the process (in this case, two years) to get to a “final report” of some kind might work against the very healing that is sought. It prioritizes “finishing” over listening and relationships. This violence has been going on for hundreds of years; it will take a long and sustained effort to find healing.   

A Breakdown in Trust

The Commission has faced internal and external turmoil. Families of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls have criticized the process for a lack of adequate communication and outreach. On top of that, “several staff members have resigned in recent months, including executive director Michele Moreau, and chief commissioner Marion Buller has faced calls to step down,” the July 11 story said.

Further, one of the five commissioners — Marilyn Poitras, a Métis professor of law at the University of Saskatchewan — resigned this month: “Ms. Poitras said she wanted to talk about the resilience of Indigenous women, but a ‘colonial’ mindset led others to focus on the deficits,” the story said.

The Globe and Mail has run several stories on the inquiry: Families want more resignations from missing, murdered women inquiry (July 12) and Leader of missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry rebuffs calls to start over (July 13).

The stories provide more background on why the process is floundering. For instance, close relatives of some of the victims wrote Prime Minister Justin Trudeau an open letter asking him to restart the inquiry, “saying they no longer trust the commission to move forward with its mandate and that the process lacks the ceremony, languages and medicine required for the comfort of the family members who testify.” (Emphasis added.)

Chief Commissioner Butler rejected the proposed restart, saying it “would be unfair to the family members who testified before commissioners in Whitehorse in May … ‘It was hard for them to share their grief and their anger and their frustration with us,’ Ms. Buller said. ‘You could feel it and you could see it. And it would undo all of their sharing, in my view.’”

This is the painful legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, the view of early explorers and settlers that saw First Nations peoples as uncivilized and less than human. It was a mindset, justified by the Church, that allowed for the theft of indigenous lands and the abuse of indigenous people. It is a legacy that continues today and one that will be very difficult to unravel.

Canada may or may not get the process right, but at least it is acknowledging the problem and struggling to find a way forward. This is far ahead of what the United States is doing.

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