How the MMIW inquiry could help long-suffering families

Indigenous advocates see family liaison units as a positive first step to help grieving families find answers—but want more to be done

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls finally have somewhere to go with their questions, their concerns and their grief. On Wednesday, the federal government released the details of a national inquiry into the disturbing trend, and part of that plan includes the creation of family information liaison units tasked with addressing those long-standing concerns in a culturally appropriate way.

Some advocates say that while the units are a positive first step, they’re not enough. “I think they’re a good idea. I don’t think they are an alternative to what we were looking for,” Native Women’s Association of Canada president Dawn Lavell-Harvard says. “Many of the families feel the cases of their particular loved ones were mishandled, that there was police misconduct or they were closed prematurely, and that they didn’t see justice.”

The inquiry’s terms of reference state that the five commissioners are authorized to refer families looking to reopen or pursue older cases to provincial and territorial victim services. In a press release responding to the inquiry, the NWAC expressed concern that the commissioners were missing the opportunity to provide families with more than grief counselling—namely, justice.

The government earmarked $16.17 million—that’s on top of the $53.8 million price tag that comes with the inquiry—for these liaisons, which would gather information on behalf of families. Lavell-Harvard argues that frustrated families don’t want to be redirected back to a system that’s already failed them once. However, she is hopeful the liaisons will mean families who suffer missing loved ones in future will have a better outcome.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said Wednesday older cases will be examined by the commissioners throughout the life of the inquiry. “Families who say the death of their loved one was called a suicide or an accident or an overdose, as opposed to a murder—those patterns are the kinds of things the commissioners will have to look into,” she said, adding that having both sides “lawyer up” is not the best use of the commissioners’ time. “That’s why we put in place these systems that will be full of support and information.”

She said there will be a feedback loop between the victim support services and the commission to ensure families are satisfied with the help they’re getting.

The inquiry, led by B.C.’s first female First Nations judge, Marion Buller, will begin on Sept. 1, 2016, and last two years. Anna Betty Achneepineskum, deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in Northern Ontario, says she hopes they won’t have to wait much longer than that for a report.

Achneepineskum worked in Indigenous legal services for 23 years, and recalls families telling her they believed the death of their loved one wasn’t “accidental,” as it had been labelled by police. “Many families have been dealing with frustrations for many years where their pleas to have cases reopened fell on deaf ears.” She adds these family liaison units could help some of those families.

Once the inquiry wraps up, and commissioners hand their recommendations over to federal, provincial and territorial governments, Achneepineskum hopes to see a reward system implemented to help solve old cases, more resources for police to properly investigate and, importantly, “no more homicides of our women.”

Wednesday’s announcement comes two years after an RCMP report that detailed nearly 1,200 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. NWAC, however, estimates that number to be closer to 4,000. “We haven’t lost hope completely,” Lavell-Harvard says. “I think there’s still some work to be done, but now that burden falls on the shoulders of the commissioners to see what can be done to get justice and get answers for those families.”

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