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Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women grappling with how to get police files

Those heading up Canada’s inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women are still figuring out how they can compel police forces and provinces to comply with their investigation, five months after being appointed.

In their first press conference since taking over the closely-scrutinized jobs, the commissioners said Tuesday they don’t intend to enter reserves where they lack local permission from band leadership, making it unclear how they’ll tackle issues of sexual assault on reserves.

The commissioners stressed they’d proceed with a culturally relevant, “trauma-informed” process that echoes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

When people do testify, they will be more likely to be in a circle rather than on a stand next to a judge, and there won’t be typical cross-examinations. Experts will include elders and youth representatives, alongside medical experts.

“You might see evidence given by families together –  not one at a time marched up at the stand, but together –  helping each other with their stories,” said Susan Vella, the commission’s lead lawyer.

Launched in August 2016, after years of pleas from local leaders and advocates calling attention to the alarming number of Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing in Canada over the years, the inquiry is meant to probe the systematic reasons why Indigenous women are five times more likely to suffer a violent death than other women in Canada, according to a nationwide survey of police departments.

According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, more than 1,200 Indigenous women and girls have been murdered or gone missing across the country since 1980 — although advocates have pointed out that number could be as high as 4,000.

“You might see evidence given by families together.”

Vella, the commission’s lead lawyer, said that reviewing police files will be “a fundamental part” of the inquiry, but she couldn’t specify how they’ll get forces to give them records “that will be looked at by various experts.”

This is the first national inquiry with permission to ask each province and territory to provide documents, and to hold agencies accountable by referring them to superior court prosecutors. But Vella said the inquiry cannot “interfere with any ongoing, active police investigation.”

Indigenous groups have told VICE News they’re concerned about a toothless inquiry that focuses on social issues while disregarding police negligence.

Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, says she hopes the inquiry holds police forces to account for the way in which they investigated cases — or failed to entirely.

“They are part of the problem,” she said. “I don’t want it to be overlooked, and I know that’s what families have been calling for.”

Wilson says Manitoba has roughly 100 missing and murdered women. Many come from the province’s north to Winnipeg, where criminals prey on Indigenous women struggling to adjust to urban life.

“It’s almost to the point that we’re numb to the information,” she said. “The women and families have been fighting hard to get to this point. The frustration has been growing.”

Speaking for the commissioners, Vella said they’re still figuring out how they’ll compel police to co-operate.

“We will work through the files that we can get; we have the power to summon,” Vella said, adding there will be more details “in coming weeks.”

Chief Commissioner Marion Buller said her commission will only enter communities where local band officials have granted permission: “If we’re not invited, we don’t go.”

That raises questions of how the commissioners will deal with the issue of sexual assault within communities and families. Vella said the inquiry aims to provide a safe space for women to testify, but did not give details.

“Conventional legal truth-testing techniques do not always do justice to the women who are trying to tell their experiences, with respect to the sexual violence they have suffered,” said Vella.

“Do not expect to see a traditional western courtroom.”

Buller said the inquiry will hear testimony through poems, storytelling and art pieces.

“Do not expect to see a traditional western courtroom. Do not expect to see or hear a trial. Rather, expect to see and hear Indigenous people, telling their own stories, in their own ways, on their own terms.”

The commissioners did not discuss how sexual-assault survivors could participate if their communities don’t invite the inquiry. They did say that those facing stigma for being two-spirited or queer will be offered transportation to a safe space.

Buller acknowledged families are frustrated that testimony won’t start until at least seven months into the two year-process.

“We have to do the job properly, and that takes time,” she said. “To do anything less than having the proper infrastructure, the proper planning in place, in my view would be bordering on negligence.”

She said her team has spent roughly 10 percent of its $53.8-million budget.

Vella said the commission intends to hear from men, on how they’re affected by women disappearing or being killed. But as for men in similar situations, “we won’t be conducting a forensic review in those cases.”

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