New questions from all sides as MMIW inquiry nears

[Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, speaks to reporters following a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 16 / THE CANADIAN PRESS]

As the federal government prepares to launch a national, public investigation into this country’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, some high-profile conservative figures have bristled publicly at the suggestion that the RCMP’s data is incomplete and have questioned the need for a public inquiry at all.

Last week, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett drew criticism for suggesting the true number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in this country is “way bigger” than the figure put forth by the RCMP.

Bennett, who has been meeting with Indigenous communities and other stakeholders to discuss what the inquiry should look like, surprised reporters last week when she said that while the RCMP has done their best, there may be hundreds of cases of missing and murdered women that were not properly investigated.

According to a report issued by the RCMP in 2014, 1,181 Indigenous women and girls were murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012. However, Indigenous groups say they have a list of more than 3,000 names of women who have died violently or disappeared in that timeframe.

“So when you hear the kinds of stories that we’ve been hearing — someone who died by a shot through the back of her head is called a suicide, somebody whose arms are tied behind their back is called a suicide — you have to say that this is much greater,” Bennett told reporters last week. When contacted, Bennett did not respond to requests for comment.

That assertion sparked criticism and complaints from some who felt that Bennett called into question the professionalism of the RCMP.

“If you look at it on the surface, here you’ve got Ministers of the Crown saying that the official agencies of the state got the numbers wrong by a factor of three, in any other field that wouldn’t happen. People would be asking questions,” said Tom Flanagan, author and former advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in conversation with Yahoo Canada News .

“Carolyn Bennett is not noted for being a clear speaker, she probably never will articulate it clearly, but what I think is happening is the de facto expansion of the mandate,” he adds.

Flanagan calls this latest inquiry simply another act in a long play that began with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples established in 1991 and continued with the Truth and Reconciliation in 2008.

“Whether they [public inquiries] lead to recommendations that can be implemented are kind of beside the point,” says Flanagan. “They provide an ongoing forum for grievance mongering and building a sense of victimization which can lead to other kinds of gains, larger monetary transfers to Aboriginal organizations. A lot of this money doesn’t really produce any change in way of life as far as I can see.”

Not alone in his views, in an editorial last week in the Toronto Star Thomas Walkom questioned the wisdom of expanding the inquiry’s scope to include cold cases and suspicious deaths, writing: “But if the commission of inquiry her government plans to establish is tasked with re-investigating such cold cases, will it have time to do anything else?”

And Jeffrey Simpson, a columnist for the Globe and Mail, published an editorial questioning what, if anything, a public inquiry would accomplish.

“If the government chooses the vehicle of a public inquiry, then it will stretch on for many years and cost huge amounts of money – to produce outcomes that mostly can be predicted today, including that of the first-year criminology student’s understanding that the majority of assaults were committed by men who had intimate or close relations with the victims (that is, aboriginal men)…”

This view, according to Kim Stanton, legal director of the Women’s Legal and Education Fund (LEAF), largely ignores the actual purpose of public inquiries.

“From my perspective, an inquiry — if it’s well-led — is much more than the production of a report. What it should be if it’s a national, public inquiry is a pedagogical process. It should be an opportunity to teach the wider population why Indigenous women and girls have gone missing and been murdered at disproportionate rates compared to the rest of the population, what the root causes of that are and what can be done about it,” she told Yahoo Canada News.

She cites a history of poor relations and a complete lack of trust between many Indigenous people and police as a major factor in the victim tally discrepancies.

“In terms of trusting the numbers from the RCMP, we have a problem from the outside with trust,” Stanton explains.

“It’s only very recently that the police started to collect this kind of data, it was left to Indigenous women’s groups to collect up until the last decade or so. What the Ministers have heard across the country and what we hear all the time from Indigenous women and their families is that there are many instances in which the police do not pursue an investigation of their missing loved one, the prosecutors don’t pursue it, and that there are many many instances of disappearances or deaths that are suspicious to the families that are simply not pursued by the police.”

Mary Sillett, former president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada and one of the commissioners on the 1991 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), credits Indigenous-focused public inquiries for raising consciousness among Canadians and contributing to healing within Indigenous communities.

“The public broadcast of these issues [RCAP and Truth and Reconciliation] generated so much public support and sympathy and assisted in putting pressure on the Government,”she wrote to Yahoo Canada News in an email.

“A reconciliation relationship was able to mean something when apologies were given. Many were given closure so that families and communities could find out what happened to their relatives; healing programs were developed and accurate records of history from the survivors — not the oppressors — were given.”

Public inquiries, according to Stanton, are not just an opportunity to re-investigate criminal cases. They are better used as a vehicle to examine the systemic issues that give rise to the disproportional violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls.

“I think that a national inquiry needs to dig into that resistance that we have as a society to prioritize what needs to be done to make Indigenous women and girls safer here,” she adds.

For Flanagan, however, public inquiries will continue to be viewed with a jaundiced eye.

“Putting sad people on stage is part of the play,” he says. “It raises the emotional level and makes politicians more willing to open the purse strings.”