Open letter to Chief Commissioner Marion Buller on the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

Written by Numerous Signatories on May 16, 2017

Dear Chief Commissioner Buller,

Across the country, families, advocates, Indigenous leaders, experts and grassroots people are loudly raising alarms that the Inquiry is in serious trouble. We recognize that you and your fellow Commissioners have undertaken a difficult challenge, however, it is now clear that you must take immediate action to mitigate the damage and fundamentally shift your approach in order to move forward in a credible way.

We write this in honour of the spirits of the women, girls and Two-Spirit people – our relations – who spur us to ongoing resistance of the systemic violence that continues in this country.

We are deeply concerned with the continued lack of communication that is causing anxiety, frustration, confusion, and disappointment in this long-awaited process. We request that you, as the leader of this Inquiry, substantially rework your approach in order to regain trust and ensure that families are no longer feeling re-traumatized in this process. We echo and strongly agree with the concerns raised by the Manitoba MMIWG Coalition, the Coalition on MMIWG in BC, Indigenous organizations, and recognized advocates in recent days.

Here are some of the critical issues and questions that urgently need to be addressed by you in your capacity as Chief Commissioner:

  • RESPECTING THE SPIRITS OF OUR RELATIONS: We note there is inconsistency in following Indigenous ceremonial protocols to acknowledge, respect, recognize and honour the spirits of our sisters and families. As was indicated by the pre-inquiry process, ceremony and culture must be intricately incorporated into all aspects of the Inquiry’s schedule and work. We have heard from some people who participated in advisory circles or meetings that there was not enough time following ceremony to complete work needed to be done. In other cases, we have heard there has been a lack of a needed and/or appropriate ceremony. The Commission must find a way to strike the right balance between the time families and/or a community indicates it needs for ceremony and the work that the Inquiry seeks to achieve without rushing or compromising either. We recommend that proper planning with community must be done to respect specific Indigenous laws and ceremony where the Inquiry will be sitting. Communities need time to discuss among their Elders and ceremonial people so they can provide feedback to the Inquiry on the amount of time they would need to be able to respectfully observe their own regional protocols or wishes around prayers and ceremony.

 

  • EXTENSION: With the first report due on November 1, 2017 and the hearings for families now delayed until the fall, the timeframe for this Inquiry is clearly too short. We disagree with the National Inquiry’s assessment that an extension is not necessary (as stated in response to the Manitoba MMIWG Coalition). We recommend that you formally request an extension now rather than wait. This will enable you to use the time this summer to seriously consider how the Inquiry can be reformatted to address the myriad of concerns being raised widely across the country, including the concerns we are outlining here.
  • LEADERSHIP: We are deeply concerned and confused as to why so many of the most renowned family leaders, advocates, activists, and grassroots (in short, those known and respected across the country with a deep subject matter expertise), have not been asked to help. This is baffling and a missed opportunity for those who are anxious to contribute to the Inquiry’s success. With respect, refusing to engage with known and respected advocates who have led the charge for the Inquiry over the last 30 years does not bolster your independence; it simply harms your ability to effectively pursue your mandate. We have noted that the lack of a centralized office and lack of a leadership with this deeper knowledge has put the Inquiry at a disadvantage. We urge you to convene a working group as soon as possible who can help to put the Inquiry back on track this summer. We urge you to shift the Inquiry process by hiring a Managing Director or Chairperson from among the many recognized and respected Indigenous grassroots experts across the country whose task it would be to help oversee, guide, and ensure the overall vision for the Inquiry is being achieved as set out in the terms of reference but importantly, also in accordance with the spirit and call for the Inquiry coming from families and advocates over these many years. We recognize that you have retained excellent people as legal counsel and staff for the Inquiry. However, there is widespread perception and concern that the Inquiry is too legalistic in its operations to date, and that a legal lens is dominating the Inquiry’s pursuit of its mandate. We urge you, as Chief Commissioner, to personally take a clear lead in expressing the vision and direction of the Inquiry, with openness and transparency, and in keeping with the advice provided in the pre-Inquiry phase regarding Indigenous legal orders. The guidance of Elders and from families of MMIWG2S will be of critical assistance to you in this regard, and more broadly over the course of the Inquiry.

 

  • TRAUMA-INFORMED PROCESS: We have heard from families that the process so far has already left some families re-traumatized. We agree with the Manitoba MMIWG Coalition’s observations that much of the process does not appear to be trauma-informed and understand from your response to their letter that the Commissioners, Directors and most staff will be trained in June 2017. We implore you as Chief Commissioner to understand the extent to which inquiry has already re-traumatized families with continued delays, silence, miscommunications, confusion, repeated cancellations, and how conversely shifting the process drastically to be open and transparent combined with a reliable schedule will help remove these as potential factors.

 

  • SUPPORTS FOR FAMILIES & LOVED ONES: Families and loved ones of MMIWG must be supported with the necessary capacity, resources and care while this process is being set up, during the sharing, and after the hearings. It is not at all clear how this will take place. We ask:
    • i. Will lawyers be available for families? There is a concern that the lessons of the BC Missing Women Inquiry have not been learned, where many lawyers were involved in the process but very few provided any representation to the families.
    • ii. What mechanisms are being set up, as indicated during the pre-inquiry phase, to ensure that proper follow up and access to traditional healing supports are in place?
  • INDEPENDENCE: We were promised an independent inquiry, but it appears that many questions remain about the role of the Privy Council Office (PCO) in decision making. Questions raised include:
    • i. Does the PCO approve expenditures or does the Inquiry?
    • ii. Has the Inquiry been hampered in its ability to support families or its work because of the PCO? iii. Has any of the budget for the Inquiry been spent to support PCO offices or civil service staff? iv. Can you demonstrate that the PCO has not or is not impairing the independence of this Inquiry?
  • COMMUNICATIONS: The disorganized, haphazard, and insufficient communications from the Inquiry has harmed its credibility and caused confusion and frustration among families and others who have a sincere desire to see the Inquiry succeed. Information about the Inquiry’s plans and procedures are sometimes released by the media or unofficially in social media, rather than from the Inquiry or directly from Commissioners. The lack of a consistent and open communications strategy has raised concerns about the Inquiry’s transparency and accountability. This can and must be remedied immediately. The Inquiry must have a clear communications plan and strategy as you proceed with your work, so that information is provided through a recognized spokesperson – ideally a Commissioner – in a predictable and reliable manner. Information should be provided regularly and should display openness about the Inquiry’s procedures, processes, and plans of action.
  • STANDING: We urge you to extend the deadline for applications for standing, since the process to date has been mired in confusion, miscommunication, lack of communication and lack of transparency. We suggest adding several due dates for additional waves of applications to come in, and request a clear explanation for families, communities, and advocates about how they can participate. In addition, much clearer explanation is needed on how the Inquiry plans to engage members of Indigenous communities affected by extreme levels of violence and individuals who are not necessarily captured by “family” hearings. More specifically, we need answers to the following questions:
    • i. How will the inquiry include people who are street-involved?
    • ii. How will the testimonies of people engaged in sex industries be included?
    • iii. How will the Inquiry accommodate individuals wanting to testify about matters related to police violence?
    • iv. How will the inquiry specifically seek to hear from Two-Spirit and Transgender individuals and experts wanting to testify?
  • SCHEDULE: There needs to be a clearly published schedule of events and locations. 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. This is leaving Indigenous grassroots people who are affected and concerned with no mechanism to support the Inquiry or families.

It is with heavy hearts that we sign our names to this letter. We all desperately want this Inquiry to work, and not only to work, but to succeed beyond what we could imagine. This is an opportunity that will not come again and none of us can afford for it to fail. We know that you, your fellow Commissioners and the staff share our desire for a successful Inquiry.

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, and we request that you respond to this letter by May 22 indicating your plans to do so.

We remain willing and ready to help. Please call upon us.

In memory of those lost and with prayers for the missing to come home,

Signed:

Christi Belcourt, Advocate/Mom/Daughter, Metis/Espanola, ON

Beverley Jacobs, Kanienkehaka, Bear Clan, Lawyer, Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. Cousin of Tashina General. Murdered April 2008.

Cheryl Maloney, President, Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women (IAAW), AB

Muriel Stanley Venne, President and Founder of IAAW

Julie Kaye, Research Advisor, IAAW; Scholar, University of Saskatchewan, misâskwatôminihk

Mary Eberts, Law Office of Mary Eberts Odelle Pike, Newfoundland Aboriginal Women’s Network

Darlene & Christie Osborne great-aunts/grandmothers of Felicia Velvet Solomon-Osborne, brutally murdered in 2003, only 2 body parts were found.

Laura Whiteman, daughter of Delores Whiteman (Missing); niece of Freida Whiteman (Missing)

April Eve Wiberg, Family Member/Survivor/Advocate and Founder, Stolen Sisters & Brothers Awareness Movement

Bridget Tolley, Family member of Gladys Tolley killed by SQ Police in 2001

Families of Sisters In Spirit

Sarah Hunt, Kwagu’ł (Kwakwaka’wakw) scholar, activist, relation

Grace Li Xiu Woo, Lawyer Amber Dean, Associate Professor, McMaster University

Theresa Ducharme, Founder and CEO of Lemon Cree and Lemon Cree Non Profit Corporation

Pamela Palmater, Mi’kmaq, Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University

Russell Diabo, First Nations Policy Analyst

Staci Duchene, family member and advocate

Dianne Bigeagle – Mother of Danita Faith Bigeagle. Missing since Feb 11, 2007

Patrick Sandy, Six Nations Mohawk Ironworker

Todd Jacobs, Kahnawake Mohawk Ironworker

Lorelei Williams, Cousin Tanya Holyk killed by serial killer Robert Pickton; niece of Belinda Williams, missing since 1978; and Founder of dance troupe Butterflies in Spirit Chasity Martin, Honoring her Auntie Paula Joy Martin (February 21 1965-April 21 1996)

Marilyn Wapass, family member of a missing and murdered woman

Kevin Daniels, former National Chief Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and Family Member of many both male and female

Stephen John Ford, Kanienkehaka, Wolf Clan, Lawyer, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory

Sheila Swasson, President of the National Aboriginal Circle Against Family Violence

Pivot Legal Society

PACE Society

Sex Workers United Against Violence Society

WISH Drop-in Society

Natalie Clark, scholar, activist Indigenous girls group facilitator, and violence counsellor

Josephine L. Savarese, Associate Professor, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, St. Thomas University, Fredericton, NB

Melissa Hyland, RSW, MEd, Executive Director, Wakata’keri:te Resiliency Rising Society, Victoria BC

Siksika Nation Leadership:

Marsha wolf collar

Eldon Weaselchild- Chief

Ruben breaker

Bradford Liitlechief

Joe Weaselchild

Leah bearchief

Jason doore

Herman Yellow old woman

Carlin Blackrabbit

Alfred Manyheads

Francis wolfleg Chief

Joseph Weasel Child

Eldon Weasel Child

Ruben Breaker

Bradford Little Chief

Brenda Jacobs, Mohawk Nation, Bear Clan, Six Nations Grand River Territory. Cousin of Tashina General. Murdered April 2008.

Terrill Tailfeathers, Blood(Kainai) Tribe

Maggie Cywink, sister of Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink – MMIWGT2S (1963-1994)

Doris Anderson, President Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council

Pamela Marie Fillier, Family Member.

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