Indigenous women's group releases own plan on MMIWG, citing 'toxic' federal process

·6 min read

OTTAWA — The Native Women's Association of Canada has walked away from what it calls a "fundamentally flawed" and politically motivated process to draft a national action plan for implementing the recommendations of an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

At an emotional news conference on Tuesday, the organization drew a firm line between the government's work on the issue and the grassroots efforts of many Indigenous women.

"Our women are resilient and we are going to take our lives back into our own hands, and we are going to look after our own children and we are going to survive as a people," said longtime Indigenous human rights activist Gladys Radek.

"Because we are not going to take this anymore."

The organization said it has lost confidence in the federal government and is done with its "toxic, dysfunctional" process. Instead, NWAC released its own national action plan, which president Lorraine Whitman said is one that "puts families, not politics, first."

"It has been two years since the commissioners issued their 231 calls for justice. Yet … very little has changed," Whitman said.

"We are no safer now than we were two years ago, so we are taking matters into our own hands."

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was launched in August 2016 and heard from more than 2,300 people over two years.

The recommendations for action spanned themes of health, justice, security and culture, including a number of calls for more effective responses to human trafficking, sexual exploitation and violence, including in the sex industry.

A national action plan was at the top of the list. But despite an initial pledge by Ottawa to have a national action plan ready in time for the first anniversary of the inquiry's findings last year, no such plan has yet materialized.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a major cause for the delay.

Her office said Tuesday that the plan will finally be unveiled on Thursday, the second anniversary of the release of the inquiry's final report.

In a statement, Bennett's office said it has worked with more than 100 partners in coming up with the plan, including Indigenous women, women's groups, families, survivors and provincial and territorial governments. The government provided funding to all the groups involved, including NWAC, it said.

"This is important and challenging work," the statement said.

"With so many voices and perspectives coming together, we recognize that there have been some difficult and challenging situations."

Bennett's office said the government values the input of NWAC and hopes it can continue working with the organization "as we put in place the concrete measures to stop this national tragedy and help families and survivors as they seek healing and justice."

While the federal government created a number of committees consisting of Indigenous representatives to provide input to the action plan, Whitman said NWAC was denied a seat on key working groups where the main ideas were being considered.

For example, she said her organization — which was instrumental in pushing the federal government to hold the inquiry in the first place — was not invited to be part of the First Nations, Métis, Inuit, 2SLGBTQQIA, or Family Survivors Circle committees, even though they addressed issues of importance to the people her group represents.

Further, NWAC alleged their representatives were subjected to "lateral violence and hostility" in their work with the government on the committees they were permitted to join.

Moreover, Whitman said NWAC received no government funding while other participating organizations did — contrary to Bennett's office's assertion.

"We were clearly an afterthought and perhaps an unwelcome intruder in the government's process."

That's why Whitman sent a letter to Bennett outlining NWAC's belief that the approach taken by the government to address the inquiry's recommendations is "fundamentally flawed."

NWAC has been vocal in criticizing Ottawa for not doing enough to implement the inquiry's 231 calls for justice, which found decades of systemic racism and human rights violations contributed to the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of Indigenous women and girls and that it constituted a "genocide."

In its self-made plan released Tuesday morning, entitled "Our Calls, Our Actions," the association lays out details of 65 steps it plans to take to address the recommendations from the MMIWG inquiry.

A key measure will be to establish a number of "resiliency lodges" that will provide healing and counselling to Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people.

These lodges will offer health and wellness programs, work to preserve language and culture and help bring justice, economic opportunities and anti-poverty measures to victims, those who have lost loved ones and marginalized Indigenous women across Canada, says NWAC CEO Lynne Groulx.

"Mainstream services are not working well for Indigenous women, and this is why we have to make a fundamental change. The inquiry called it a paradigm shift," Groulx said.

"The difference here is our own women designing the programming, leading the programming, because you need trust and you need to heal all the aspects of the person, not just one side."

One such resiliency lodge has already been built in Chelsea, Que., and a second is being prepared in New Brunswick.

Others will be built across the country as part of NWAC's action plan.

The Quebec lodge, which opened last October, has seen an "overwhelming response" with elder-led, spiritual programming focusing on intervention and prevention strategies for Indigenous women and gender-diverse people at risk. So far, the lodge has attracted close to 5,000 individuals, even in the midst of a pandemic, Groulx said.

"We are already having a tremendous success, and our success is measured by our community, what they say to us."

NWAC won't stand with the government when its plan is released and intends to focus instead on its own plan, which comes with an estimated $29 million price tag.

Instead, it will focus on its own plan, which the organization hopes to fund through contributions from all levels of government as well as from private donors and foundations. Its plan has been costed at $29 million.

"The days of aspirational documents, and plans to create a plan, have come and gone. It is time to put the calls for justice into effect," Whitman said.

Martha Martin, whose daughter Chantal Moore was shot and killed by police in New Brunswick last year during a wellness check, added an emotional note of immediacy to the calls for action from the inquiry itself and from the Indigenous women of NWAC Tuesday.

She wept openly as she talked about her daughter's untimely death and the deaths of other First Nations men and women at the hands of police — all incidents that have happened since the inquiry completed its work.

"Indigenous people that have been killed time and time again, it just feels like there's no end to our hurting," she said through her grieving mother's tears.

"It continues to keep happening to our Indigenous people."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2021.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

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