The federal government’s announcement that five commissioners will launch the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIW) next month is getting a mixed response in the Northwest.
“I think for the most part we are glad that it is moving forward,” said Mary Teegee, director of child and family services at Carrier Sekani Family Services in Prince George. Teegee is also the cousin of Ramona Wilson, who went missing in 1994 and whose body was found near the Smithers airport in 1995. The case has never been solved.
Although pleased the inquiry is moving forward, Teegee has two key concerns, that there will be no investigation into police and other agencies’ possible misconduct, and that no meaningful role in the inquiry has been assigned to the provinces and territories.
The focus of the inquiry is to identify the root causes of violence, which was a key finding in the 2006 Highway of Tears Symposium recommendations that were driven by Ramona Wilson’s family.
“I think it’s unfortunate,” she said. “This issue with the RCMP is really explicit, and we need to include the provinces and territories.”
Skeena Bulkley-Valley MP Nathan Cullen shares Teegee’s concerns with the mandate.
“It doesn’t appear to identify a direct role for the provinces and territories, despite underlying problems in provincially-regulated police and child welfare services that can actually increase the risks of violence to already vulnerable Indigenous women and children,” Cullen said in a press release.
Teegee is cautiously optimistic with the rest of the inquiry mandate, including the choice of commissioners, led by B.C. Provincial Court judge Marion Buller as chief commissioner. Buller was the first indigenous woman appointed to the provincial court bench.
“I think Marion Buller will do just fine,” Teegee said. “She is a judge in B.C. but she is not from British Columbia, she is indigenous from Saskatchewan,” Teegee said. “So on the commission there isn’t somebody from First Nations who is local to British Columbia.”
The commissioners plan to appoint regional and issue-specific advisory bodies during the inquiry. Which regions and issues are selected have yet to be determined, to which Teegee said it’s important to start advocating for something specific to northern B.C. before the inquiry’s budget of $53.8 million is assigned.
“I think they are going to be very strategic,” she said. “[But] they are going to have to do a lot of work with a limited amount of money. If you look at the Oppal inquiry, that was $10 million just for one province and now we are looking at an inquiry with a national scope,” she said.
Teegee said she is looking for the answer to just one question.
“Really, we have to ask ourselves why anything hasn’t been done to date on these issues. That’s a fundamental question.” She pointed to “all the documents that are already out there,”reports through Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch and the United Nations,”…and all the recommendations that have been left to gather dust on some shelf somewhere.”
The MMIW Inquiry will begin September 1, and will run until December 31, 2018. Along with Buller at the helm, the other commissioners are Michele Audette, former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, Qajak Robinson, a Nunuvut-born lawyer from Ottawa, and Marilyn Poitras, an expert on aboriginal law from the University of Saskatchewan and Brian Eyolfson, former vice-chair on the human rights tribunal in Ontario.
“He will bring a human rights perspective and I think this issue of missing and murdered women needs to be framed in a human rights framework,” she said.
Suzanne Anton, Attorney General and Minister of Justice said the B.C. government intends to participate and support the inquiry, and that it is a “critical step towards collaborative, meaningful, and transformative action on this important issue.”
With broad government support, Teegee however warns there is still much work to be done while the inquiry is underway to prevent violence against women and to deal with current cases of missing and murdered indigenous women.
“We can’t think all the work will stop. While the national inquiry is going on we need to make sure there are still resources to make sure our women are still safe and protected,” she said.
“Ramona was a beautiful young girl with her whole life ahead of her. She had a lot of potential. She was a brilliant bright shining star,” said Teegee.
“It is bittersweet. This inquiry is a validation of those women and girls muzzzrdered or who went missing. It says their lives matter. That Ramona’s life mattered. Her life definitely mattered to us.”