Lost and broken
The inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women is crumbling amid defections, bureaucratic chaos and personal conflict. Inside the meltdown—and the desperate bid to turn things around.
By Nancy Macdonald & Meagan Campbell
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Cabinet ministers Carolyn Bennett, Jody Wilson-Raybould, and Patty Hajdu were all on hand that day at an emotional event in Gatineau, Que., at the Canadian Museum of History. The Liberal government was delivering on one of its key campaign promises, revealing details of its much-anticipated inquiry into Canada’s 1,200 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The transfer of power to five independent commissioners took place inside the museum’s Grand Hall, overlooking the Ottawa River—a solemn space that oozes symbolism, with its six-storey view of Parliament, works by Haida icon Robert Davidson and, troublingly, perhaps, one of the world’s larger collections of totem poles.
The commissioners named included some of the best and brightest from the country’s Indigenous and northern communities. Marion Buller, a Cree jurist who sits on B.C.’s provincial court and member of the Mistawasis First Nation, would be chief commissioner. Michèle Audette, an Innu powerhouse who served in Quebec’s Charest government as an associate deputy minister, and ran unsuccessfully for the federal Liberals in 2015, would be the inquiry’s unofficial second-in-command. Qajaq Robinson, a Nunavut-raised lawyer with a white-shoe national firm and, at 36, the inquiry’s youngest commissioner. Together, they would often butt heads with the Liberals’ choice from the Prairies: Marilyn Poitras, a Harvard-trained law professor from the University of Saskatchewan. Commissioner Brian Eyolfson is known as the inquiry’s “true lawyer”: donnish, quiet, utterly overshadowed by his fellow commissioners. The Ontario human rights lawyer, who is two-spirit, is a member of the Couchiching First Nation and served as vice-chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario until 2016.
It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the moment. Perhaps nothing in the last decade had embittered Indigenous peoples more than white Canada’s failure to address the staggering number of Indigenous women brutalized and lost to violence, and what those losses sowed: grief, shattered families, suicides and cycles of despair. Police were often late to launch investigations, many of which were haphazardly carried out; and politicians just didn’t seem to care. Only three years ago, survivors, families of the dead and missing, and the wider Indigenous community had been galled to hear Stephen Harper, the former prime minister, say an inquiry into the issue wasn’t “high” on “his radar.”
It seems additionally tragic, then, that in the 13 months since, the hope and spirit of Gatineau seems to have all but disappeared. From that day forward, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has been plagued by internal power struggles, high profile resignations, leaks, and lost friendships, having held a mere three days of public hearings. Recent months have seen the rapid-fire departures of Commissioner Poitras; Michèle Moreau, its executive director; two communications directors; its director of operations; a manager of community relations; and its director of community relations, Mohawk and former Olympian Waneek Horn-Miller.
In late July, the Assembly of First Nations passed a resolution asking the Trudeau government to reset the inquiry, and alter its mandate and process. That month, Sheila North-Wilson, the influential grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, called for Buller’s resignation and for a “hard reset” to the inquiry. Several weeks earlier, an open letter signed by more than 30 advocates, Indigenous leaders and family members urged the inquiry’s chair to “mitigate the damage and fundamentally shift [her] approach,” suggesting the process was in “serious trouble.”
Under all that pressure, the protective casing that once kept these disputes inside the family—a shared commitment to victims and the process—has come undone. Maclean’s has spoken with more than a dozen well-placed sources, from family members of the murdered and lost who tried to engage with the inquiry, to the commissioners who have stayed on board and the people inside the inquiry who grew despondent and quit. Most got involved when optimism was running high, and a youthful, new prime minister got behind an idea they’d spent years fighting for. Some asked that they not be quoted, concerned they’d be painted as disloyal, or that their connections to such a dysfunctional process would harm their chances of future employment. But together, their accounts provide the first clear picture of why an inquiry born of such high hopes no sooner started than began to fall apart.
How much of the criticism levelled at the inquiry is well-founded is, itself, hotly debated. Buller, who launched B.C.’s Indigenous court in New Westminster a decade ago without a budget from the government, wonders whether some of it arises from misogyny. “I’ve asked myself that question regularly,” she told Maclean’s in a recent interview. “I hope not—but I have doubts.”
What’s clear, however, is that the inquiry has hit a boiling point. And everyone is feeling the heat as the team attempts to implement a sweeping—some say impossibly broad—mandate to “examine the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women, girls and members of the LGBTQ2S community in Canada.” The soaring task of addressing a vast array of social ills within a two-year mandate quickly got caught on mundane logistical irritants such as outdated Blackberries, buggy computers and a palsied system for claiming expenses. But deeper problems are rooted in profound differences in vision among commissioners about how the inquiry should look and feel, which left them designing the inquiry even as they were supposed to be holding hearings. “The line I heard all the time was ‘we’re building the car and driving it at the same time,’” says Sue Montgomery, who resigned as the inquiry’s director of communications in June. “Well, call me crazy, but if you do that, you’re going to crash.”
We have seen this all before, in fact: the whispers of a power struggle. Of a “toxic culture.” Of soul-destroying delays, high profile resignations, lost friendships and disagreements that could not be overcome. Of a fledgling commission, launched to fanfare and hope, that seemed suddenly on the brink.
In June of 2009, a little over a year after Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission launched, Murray Sinclair, an iron-spined Anishinaabe judge from Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench, was named its new chair, replacing Harry LaForme. The judge from the Ontario Court of Appeal had quit four months into the job, citing “incurable harm” caused by his two co-commissioners’ “repeated” refusal to “acknowledge his authority and leadership” as chair (according to one media leak, LaForme asked his fellow commissioners to address him as “Your Honour”). Three months later, his co-commissioners would follow him out the door.
Sinclair, a commanding yet empathetic authority deeply rooted in the Indigenous community, had initially turned down the TRC’s top job. But he felt the commission “had really let the survivors down,” he later said, explaining his decision ultimately to accept the role. The Manitoba judge, who speaks in a baritone that seems to rise from deep within, would go on to steer what is considered the country’s most successful commission of inquiry to completion before his elevation to the Senate last year.
From the outset, the same sense of mission has infused the current inquiry. Even through the dog days of summer, 12-hour days were the norm, and for many inside the commission, work continues when they get home. Several staff recall being routinely reduced to tears by the strain, the enormity of the task and the constant criticism: from commissioners, from government, from advocacy groups and families. On Labour Day weekend, Michèle Audette admitted in a broadcast interview that the pressure is so great she has considered stepping down.
Adding to the urgency is the knowledge that the national tragedy they’re tasked with addressing is ongoing. The TRC dealt with historical abuses. The Gomery commission investigated a kickback scheme involvingpoliticians. The Berger Inquiry looked at the potential impact of a proposed gas pipeline. Outside the MMIW hearings, by contrast, the body count continues to rise.
One of the more shocking reminders of this came just before community hearings in Whitehorse this spring; Wendy Carlick, one of the women slated to attend a March pre-hearing meeting to offer advice to inquiry staff, never showed up. Four days later, she was found murdered. Carlick, whose 19-year-old daughter, Angel, was killed a decade ago, was one of the territory’s most outspoken MMIW advocates; her body was found beside that of a friend, Sarah Macintosh, a member of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, in what police quickly labeled a double homicide. In Winnipeg, four Indigenous women have been murdered since the inquiry’s launch last September, including two 21-year-olds: Shania Chartrand, of the Lake Manitoba First Nation, and Christine Wood, of the Bunibonibee Cree Nation, who’d been in the city only a few days before she was slain. Two Ontario teens have gone missing. The list goes on.
Buller, who is known for her kindly manner in B.C. Indigenous court (she has hugged offenders she thought were making progress), says the vast majority of her Indigenous, female staff have been personally affected by ills the inquiry is addressing. Some have lost a relative or a close friend to violence. A few have experienced it first-hand. Poitras is a survivor of child abuse and rape. As a child, Audette was both sexually and physically assaulted. In 2015, after a wave of suicides in her home community of Uashat-Maliotenam, the 45-year-old broke her silence, speaking publicly of her lingering scars. Her struggles with depression include two suicide attempts, the first when she was just 13; her most recent attempt came four years ago.
Alas, that hard-won insight doesn’t necessarily help, as sources have told Maclean’s it puts the women too close to the trauma to be objective. And at least some of the challenges facing the inquiry have nothing to do with the substance of the cases. The essential problems are two-fold: mundane logistical troubles, and more existential tensions over the inquiry’s guiding framework and philosophy. Challenges on the practical side include the refurbished Dell computers and obsolete phones that staff were using; the travel and other expenses—some dating to November—that have still not been reimbursed; and the fact that, one year into the work of the inquiry, staff spread out over five offices in four separate time zones still don’t have a shared drive or network. The government bars staff from using web-based software like Google Docs, but the Privy Council Office, which governs the inquiry and oversees its budget, can’t seem to figure out how to connect them. (And its oversight doesn’t come cheap. Over the inquiry’s first eight months, costs incurred by the PCO swallowed $2 million of the $5 million spent by the inquiry). That’s not all.
The inquiry’s disorganized communications strategy, described as “farcical” in a recent editorial in the Globe and Mail, is raising concerns over transparency and focus. This should have been foreseen. An inquiry on what is arguably the hottest issue of the decade was certain to draw the public’s attention, particularly in the wake of the TRC. Yet the Liberals chose for the role of chief commissioner someone who had spent the past two decades on the bench, where judges are required to studiously ignore media and keep their thinking strictly to themselves. Sources say none of the commissioners was required to take media training. There wasn’t time for more than a cursory 20-minute primer with the inquiry’s first interim communications director. And they say that inquiry lawyers, who vet tweets and field all communications issues, had commissioners terrified to speak publicly, given concerns over risk and liability.
To Montgomery, the problem boils down to the fact that the commission’s leadership doesn’t understand the importance of communications: “They don’t get that this is a public inquiry and therefore the public has a right to know about everything. They don’t get that journalists aren’t out to screw them. But they are so afraid to say the wrong thing or get in trouble that they say nothing, which leads people to think they are hiding things.”
The TRC by comparison taught Canadians to listen, and rethink what they once knew about the Indigenous experience. Sources say that there is mounting frustration inside the current inquiry that it can’t figure out how to capitalize on this same dynamic. Until now, the only real news to emerge is about infighting; and Canadians, said one, have “tuned out.”
Half-truths risk eroding trust further, insiders say. In May, the inquiry announced it was adjourning until the fall because “many people” said they would be hunting or travelling over the summer. Insiders dispute that reasoning; they say summer hearings were postponed because the necessary groundwork hadn’t been completed. “We blamed families when it was the organization’s own fault,” said one. And in July, in the face of mounting public pressure to look at police actions, the inquiry issued a statement announcing it had assembled a “forensic team” that was “currently reviewing” police files. Sources say that work was not yet being done.
Communications with survivors and family members have been similarly criticized. Families say they’re still in the dark over key questions, including: When will hearings be held? And how can I participate? Potential witnesses are asked to call a toll-free number, according to the inquiry website; yet no one staffs those lines. A recorded voice asks callers to leave their contact information. Some families have said it’s taken weeks to get these calls returned.
In defending the process, Buller tells Maclean’s that outreach has to be carefully undertaken: “We can’t be cold-calling people. We have to always do our work in a trauma-informed way.” She adds that outreach teams, who have begun visiting communities ahead of public hearings, are finding “a great deal of success” by doing in-person conversations, which allow families and survivors to talk directly to staff, ask questions and develop trust. Montgomery, co-founder of #BeenRapedNeverReported, which sparked a global conversation about sexual violence, said she found the practice of refusing to “cold-call” survivors and families “very paternalistic.” Some would love to get a call from the inquiry, she says, which would show it was reaching out, rather than them having to do so, and “it’s not like it’s the first time they’re talking about their trauma.”
Although the leadership has said no one is being vetted before testifying, the experience of some families seems to suggest otherwise. Maranda Peter was 15 when she went missing in Whitehorse, in 1996. Her mother, Jessie, spent a year searching for her, travelling as far as Vancouver with the RCMP. All along, Maranda’s badly decomposed body had been kept hidden in the basement bedroom belonging to her boyfriend; she had been strangled to death. James Ward, who later served four years for manslaughter in his girlfriend’s death, kept her remains stuffed beneath his waterbed.
Jessie hadn’t shared her daughter’s story until last spring, when she took a call from an official from the Privy Council Office. The official, a woman, asked whether Jessie was interested in sharing her daughter’s story with the inquiry, and later met with her in Ross River, in Yukon’s southeast. Jessie says she was looking forward to travelling to Whitehorse to tell her daughter’s story, and privately hoped the inquiry might create a memorial that included her daughter’s name.
But in May, two weeks before hearings began, Jessie received another call from the PCO, cancelling her planned trip to Whitehorse. She was told other families would testify instead, adding that two of her neighbours in Ross River—the family members of other victims of violence—also had their trips to the hearings cancelled (the inquiry did not respond with comment on the matter after repeated requests by Maclean’s). “We did all that running around,” says Jessie. “We even got the agenda. Then they cancelled.”
Onto this unprecedented and sprawling endeavour, the Liberal government slapped a two-year deadline—one that happened to square neatly with the electoral calendar (the TRC, by comparison, was mandated five years, and took almost six; the McDonald Commission, which examined the behaviour of a police security squad in the run-up to the Montreal Olympics, ran four). Critics charge the inquiry is little more than an opportunistic political tool for the Liberals.
The Trudeau government is also being criticized for perceived uniformity in its choice of commissioners. All the members but Audette have law degrees; they were educated at the country’s top five universities, and live in its biggest cities (Audette splits her time between Wendake, outside Quebec City, and Mani-Utenam, near Sept-Îles). “These are all privileged women,” says one source. Their salaries of $205,000 put them among the country’s top one per cent of earners (the chief commissioner’s salary is $270,000; Buller took a pay cut in accepting it). Critics complain that there were no bold or radical choices, like Indigenous children’s advocate Cindy Blackstock, broadcaster Candy Palmater, or former judge and child advocate Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond; though it is worth noting that no one said Harry LaForme or Murray Sinclair—both big-city, high-earning judges—were too credentialed or privileged for the job when they were helming the TRC.
Carolyn Bennett, minister of the newly renamed Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, did not respond when asked by Maclean’s whether she continues to have faith in the inquiry, and whether the government intends to fill Poitras’s position. Inquiry sources say the remaining commissioners wish to continue as four, but that means the inquiry will lack a voice from the Prairies, which have the highest rates of violence against women in the country—roughly double rates in Ontario and Quebec.
Sources also claim the inquiry is lacking a long-term plan, structure and overarching vision—a problem they say has worsened as the commission has come under fire. Insiders say commissioners are responding to criticism in knee-jerk fashion, pointing to a decision made in February to incorporate Indigenous men and boys in the process. In another case, the leadership decided to adjourn national expert hearings for the summer, only to reverse the move in the face of mounting concern over the pace of progress.
Then, in late July, came a bombshell decision by commissioners to examine police conduct, widening the inquiry’s scope enormously. The non-inclusion of police conduct had sparked outrage and a lot of head-scratching: every pre-inquiry consultation the government held in almost two dozen Indigenous communities had included a plea to review police conduct. Commissioners cannot recommend that police re-open cases, but they aim to report systemic police bias, where and if they find it, to authorities.
The commissioners say the process is, by necessity, constantly evolving: “for a national inquiry to be inclusive, culturally appropriate and trauma-informed,” says Robinson. The planning, preparation and work has to incorporate what commissioners “learn and hear,” she adds, and to undertake something “innovative and inclusive has taken time and will be ongoing.” Robinson’s own appointment stirred controversy: although she speaks fluent Inuktituk, grew up in Igloolik and is raising an Inuk son, she’s not Indigenous.
Buller, meanwhile, insists that there is a long-term plan and structure. The first step involves “finding the truth,” through hearings and research and statements, she says. Then, “we want to give life to the truth through our reports, both the interim report and the final report. And then we want to honour the truth, through commemoration.”
One source counters that it is not a plan, so much, as what the government asked of the inquiry. Montgomery says what is needed is a detailed road map, with a schedule, dates and locations, all of it made public. “People need to know what to expect and need to prepare. Two weeks’ notice isn’t enough for people to prepare, both psychologically and logistically.”
There is no shortage of amazing, insightful women running the inquiry, adds another source, “but we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re afraid to admit it.” Right now, “everyone wants this to work. That’s the only thing holding this together.”
The most damning criticism of the inquiry’s framework may have come from Poitras, the commissioner from Saskatchewan who rocked the inquiry with her resignation in July. In an interview with Maclean’s, she said she worries the inquiry is following a “status quo, colonial model,” calling it a “tried road” that has repeatedly failed. The Métis mother of four, who has built Indigenous legal initiatives across the country, believes the inquiry should follow a grassroots-oriented model guided by families that would put Indigenous protocols and processes first. While experts can provide statistics and facts, Poitras had hoped to hold hearings in tiny communities, prisons, shelters and kitchen tables, searching for insights into why Indigenous women face such staggering levels of violence.
Concerns over the inquiry’s guiding philosophy are shared among some staff: “Are we doing this right?” asked one. “What is right? I struggle every day with the question.” But the remaining commissioners defend the inquiry’s approach, saying it strikes a balance between sensitivity and legal rigour. Eyolfson says it incorporates Indigenous ceremony, legal principles and cultural values: “In Whitehorse, we had a sacred fire that burned while we were there; we had a community feast in the evening; we opened the hearings with prayer, and had elders present in the hearing space; we sat in a semi-circle with the families and survivors. Hearings didn’t look anything like a Canadian legal setting.”
That said, Eyolfson notes, “people did advocate for a public inquiry.” The commission, he notes, is established under the Federal Inquiries Act and bound to the inquiry laws of all 13 provinces and territories: “We have to, to a certain extent, abide by that Canadian legal framework.” But that framework offers certain advantages, including the authority to compel records and witnesses, including municipal and provincial police, and their documents. Buller refers to it as the power to “open filing-cabinet doors”—one the TRC never had.
The art of leadership requires a range of skills: battle-hardened confidence, team smarts, fearlessness. Sometimes, it means telling the government to take a hike. Thomas Berger, who headed the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry 40 years ago, resisted political pressure to move quickly, delaying the inquiry by a year to give remote, Indigenous communities time to prepare. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who’d appointed Berger, was ultimately unperturbed, the B.C. lawyer told Maclean’s this summer: “I chose you to do this job because I wanted someone who was not a patsy,” he quotes the prime minister as telling him over lunch.
Murray Sinclair, meanwhile, moved the Truth and Reconciliation Commission headquarters to Winnipeg from Ottawa and altered the structure so the TRC’s executive director was no longer accountable to the federal government. He made the senior administrative job his, allowing him to make all key decisions. When asked to what he attributed the TRC’s success, Sinclair was unequivocal: “I knew where we needed to go. I wrote in detail what I wanted to achieve, and how I thought we could get there before we even began.” He essentially stuck to his road map, pushing his own timeline, and deviating little over six years. “That’s what the inquiry lacks,” agrees Montgomery. “Someone with the courage to say: ‘Here’s where we are, here’s where we’re going, and here’s the map, now let’s go.’ ”
For the TRC, the one-year mark would later come to be seen as the turning point, when the commission finally found its footing. The MMIW inquiry rang in its first birthday on Sept. 1. No one was blowing out candles at its Vancouver headquarters, and no wonder. The inquiry continues to be pummelled by criticism describing it as broken, dysfunctional and disorganized. But Robinson, at least, says she was never expecting the process to be pretty.
“How do you look at an issue touching on 300 years of a dynamic between the state and Indigenous people and how that has affected the women and the children in this country?” she says, her voice swelling with emotion. “To think we are going to do that in a linear, smooth way—that’s not rocky and emotional and heart-wrenching—is foolhardy. And I think people in this country need to become okay with the difficulties and how uncomfortable this will be. It has to be.”
If there’s good news for the commission, it’s that, somehow, none of the criticism lobbed at it to date has been fatal. The teams need a skilled executive manager, Montgomery suggests: someone experienced with start-ups, who might wrest control of capital and budget planning from the PCO, and cut back on red tape (Buller is unconvinced: “It’s taxpayer money. We can’t just expect government to give us a cheque for $54 million”).
What’s more, there are offers of assistance. The AFN tells Maclean’s it has offered help in getting word out to survivors and family through its membership, social media and—most crucially—its fax machine. It’s connected to every band office in the country: the only surefire way to reach all 634 of them, since some communities are still without Internet. The Native Women’s Association of Canada, which has built a database of more than 600 missing and murdered Indigenous women, and relationships with their families, is willing to reach out to family members on the inquiry’s behalf. So far, these offers have been rebuffed.
Still, commissioners told Maclean’s they have heard the criticism and are looking to engage with national Indigenous organizations. Buller says they are also hiring more communications staff, and considering farming out media strategy to an external team. Buller told Maclean’s they plan to re-engage with the public and with families: “more outreach in media and in person. More interviews. More information. More contact with coalitions and grassroots groups.”
The TRC’s approach was always to engage the public, and not just the government. Its first national event was held in Winnipeg, in 2010, one year into its mandate. The four-day event, with free concerts by Buffy Sainte-Marie and Blue Rodeo, drew 40,000. Murray Sinclair knew that if he delivered the TRC’s 1,200-page final report to the government first, it would become doorstops for MPs. It had happened to him before. In, 1988, he co-chaired Manitoba’s Aboriginal Justice Inquiry. Its groundbreaking final report, issued in 1991, is still widely admired in justice and academic circles; but in the end, it didn’t change society. Sure, Winnipeg has more Indigenous lawyers and police officers, as Sinclair recommended, but Indigenous incarceration rates in the province have doubled for men in the 25 years since, and tripled for women. Discriminatory practices and a biased system continue to work against Indigenous accused, from the moment a person is first identified by police, to their appearance before a judge, to their hearing before a parole board.
Ultimately, the success of a public inquiry boils down to a single element: Did it initiate real change? By that measure, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which launched in 1991 after the Oka Crisis, is another high-profile failure. No one remembers what the commission had to say. Its 400 recommendations have gone almost entirely ignored.
Engagement, then, becomes one of the commission’s most crucial steps. Sinclair took the report to Canadians directly, through media, charities and non-profit groups, schools and educators, academics and book clubs. Instead of making recommendations, he came up with a series of 94 “Calls to Action,” urging media, universities, public school systems and others to change themselves, not wait for government to do it for them. Sinclair stressed that, ultimately, he wasn’t writing it for government, but for the rest of society.
It took 52 years for Terry Ladue to hear his family sing him Happy Birthday. It happened in Whitehorse in May, outside the white tent on the Yukon River that housed the inquiry’s first round of public hearings. For Terry and his siblings, who hadn’t spoken to one another in years, the hearings served as an unofficial reunion. They’d come together to testify about their mother’s 1970 murder. Terry was just four when Jane Dick-Ladue was killed by a man she was involved with, the inquiry heard. Thereafter, Ladue’s family scattered. Terry and his four siblings were raised in foster homes when they weren’t at residential schools. Collectively, they’ve suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse while being cut off from their traditions, culture and language. Terry was grievously harmed by childhood sex abuse, but it is his mother’s death that most haunts the Kaska man, a member of the Crow moiety.
“The effect it’s had on me is very simple,” he told the panel. “I don’t know how to love. I wasn’t taught how to love. I have three beautiful boys out there, and I can’t even tell them I love them. I don’t know what that means.”
There are no records of Jane’s violent murder. Shaun, Terry’s younger brother, fought back tears while telling the inquiry, in stark terms, how Jane was beaten until she was unconscious, and never woke up.
Jane Dick-Ladue’s story was among those shared by 50 community members over the three days of hearings in the Yukon capital. Their testimony revealed the crater that opens at the heart of an Indigenous family when a mother or aunt or sister is murdered or disappeared—a hole that seems to suck in one generation after the next. Terry Ladue told commissioners it was the first time he had ever spoken of his mother’s murder, a disclosure that brought home the point of having an inquiry in the first place. Having been brushed off by police, coroners, doctors and political leaders, people like him just might receive something never tendered before—not healing, not answers, but something more simple. The chance to be heard.