Missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry is ‘shrouded in secrecy,’ critics argue

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says she shares the concerns of families that her government’s inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women has gotten off to a rocky start. “I have concerns if they have concerns,” she said.

“It’s clear that the importance of listening to families is to hear their insights, to be able to get an excellent report and recommendations, to stop this tragedy, but it’s also the healing process for the families,” Bennett told journalists on Tuesday.

“We wanted the families to be front and centre in this.”

Bennett was responding to concerns outlined in a letter sent to Chief Commission of the Murdered and Missing Women’s Inquiry, Marion Buller, earlier this week..

Many of the concerns voiced in the open letter were not addressed in the inquiry’s statement.

“Across the country, families, advocates, Indigenous leaders, experts and grassroots people are loudly raising alarms that the inquiry is in serious trouble,” reads the letter.

Signed by over 50 individuals and organizations, the letter calls on the commissioners of the inquiry to shift their approach in order to mitigate the continued delays, miscommunications, repeated cancellations and confusion regarding inquiry processes, which the signatories say, has already occurred.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, the inquiry defended their work and reiterated their plan to shift towards an approach more focused on community-based involvement, a decision made after concerns were made that the inquiry’s consultations were duplicating the pre-inquiries of last year. Before the truth gathering process begins, a team from the inquiry will act as facilitators to communities.

“The community visit approach will focus on helping prepare families and survivors of violence to participate in the national inquiry,” reads the statement.

Many of the concerns voiced in the open letter were not addressed in the inquiry’s statement.

“We ask that you now take immediate steps to address the serious concerns about the viability for the inquiry to continue without a fundamental shift to correct the structural failures that are now being flagged across the country,” the letter reads.

“Everybody feels left out or that their loved one’s story is not going to be heard,”

Vanessa Brooks has been waiting to share her sister’s story with the national inquiry, and wishes those behind the inquiry would be more like her victim services worker, who calls her to check in, even when she doesn’t have an update.

“The way that they’re doing it is definitely not working, and you can hear that, you can hear the rumblings from all the families that it’s not working, and everybody feels left out or that their loved one’s story is not going to be heard,” Brooks told VICE News.

Brooks wants the national inquiry to appoint dedicated liaisons to call the families so they feel heard. She only learned Tuesday from her victim services worker — not the inquiry itself — that the inquiry’s family meetings would be suspended until the fall.

The $54 million dollar inquiry is slated to begin official hearings with the families and communities of the murdered and missing in Whitehorse.

The remaining family meetings have been suspended until the fall, on the basis that the summer months are spent for hunting and family members might not all be available to attend meetings. Instead, the commission says it will be taking the time to speak with experts on violence against women.

This has raised concerns that the inquiry will not be able to submit the first report on its findings in time for the November 1 release date.

An extension has been suggested by the signatories and deemed necessary for the inquiry to advance in light of the delaying of talks with families, the commission should also consider reformatting the inquiry to address the mounting concerns as presented in the letter.

The letter to Buller points to a lack of transparency around the procedures and plans as the inquiry progresses causing confusion and frustration among the families who want to the inquiry to succeed.

“The inquiry thus far appears shrouded in secrecy.”

The inquiry has already begun shown signs of internal strife with the Director of communications, Michael Hutchinson, being let go after only a couple of months and the recent resignation of the senior communications adviser, Sue Montgomery.

An open and consistent communication strategy is needed in order to forge ahead with the inquiry as a trusting partnership between commissioners and those affected by the cases, the signatories argue.

“The inquiry thus far appears shrouded in secrecy giving the impression that participation in family advisory circles or other meetings is by invitation only, causing confusion,” reads the letter.

Brooks agrees:

“Change needs to happen, but I think the only way that change is going to happen is if everybody has an honest and open dialogue and that means sitting there and listening to how angry and hurt we are at the process.”

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