OTTAWA — Commissioners of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls say they need more than two years and $53.8 million to triumph over slow-moving bureaucracy, but can’t estimate how much would be sufficient.
On Wednesday, the commissioners released their interim report, which claimed Ottawa bureaucrats have bungled almost everything, from hiring staff to managing thousands of families’ written testimonies.
They also called for a new, national police task-force to address cases families are begging to have reviewed.
The 90-page report outlines the inquiry’s format and scope, and gives an extensive retelling of existing research on the issue. But four pages on "challenges" paint a damning picture of the troubled process.
"The national inquiry has to adhere to the human resources, information technology and contracting rules that apply to all areas of the federal government," reads the report. "This has seriously obstructed our ability to do our work in a timely way."
Ottawa ordered the inquiry to produce two reports — Wednesday’s interim report and a final one in November 2018 — after the federal Liberals set up the commission last year, with a $53.8-million budget to probe the root causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls.
The commissioners have spoken with almost 320 people through three major hearings in Winnipeg, the Yukon and Nova Scotia, as well as an August meeting with experts in Winnipeg. Some 900 people have come forward. But the inquiry has also seen multiple staff resign, including one of the five commissioners, and calls to reboot the process.
On Wednesday — the halfway point for the inquiry — chief commissioner Marion Buller said her team has "spent or allocated about a third" of its budget.
Asked multiple times at a morning press conference how much time and money the inquiry needs, Buller refused to provide a ballpark figure, and said she wants to make a single, adequate request to Ottawa, instead of multiple.
Buller also said the inquiry would persist even if Ottawa denied more funding and time. "We've been ready for that all along. We cannot let down families and survivors."
While the commissioners admit they have poorly communicated with families — they recently hired a powerful Ottawa public-relations firm — the report puts most of the blame for the inquiry’s shortcomings at the foot of the federal government.
Wednesday’s report also says red tape meant it took eight months to set up an office, and an average of four months to hire anybody (including a five-week security screen).
The report cites federal procurement and contracting policies for making it difficulty to compensate "elders, fire-keepers or cultural advisers in a timely fashion" as well as pay for families’ out-of-pocket travel expenses.
When commissioners finally do hear from families, transcription takes up large amounts of staff time. A legal case-management system meant "to manage and analyze the hundreds of thousands of videos, transcripts, electronic documents, paper records, and artistic submissions" is still being set up.
The report warns the short timelines "will limit our ability to do in-depth analysis of data collected through the truth-gathering process." Buller said the inquiry also has to grapple with new cases, unlike the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools.
The commissioners said though the former department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada collected families’ contact information in the pre-inquiry hearings, privacy laws prevented INAC from passing it on to the inquiry. "This has left families and survivors frustrated and confused about how to become a witness," reads the report.
Similarly, long-standing grassroots groups already hold contacts for families and survivors, but are "overstretched with limited budgets," the report claims. "Without additional funding, it wasn’t fair to ask them to redirect their time and resources away from other projects to help us do our work."
Grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, Sheila North Wilson, was skeptical of that reasoning. She said the inquiry could have done better outreach to grieving families about needing to re-register, and should still approach grassroots groups who are passionate about the issue.
"The current interim report only restates what we already know," said North Wilson, who was hoping the report would’ve instead convinced her the inquiry doesn’t need a hard reset, something she called for this summer. "By now it should have gone beyond and showed how systematic changes could be happening. That's what I was hoping to see."
North Wilson also said the report focuses too much on commemorating those who are missing and murdered, instead of helping families who are hiring private investigators to deal with sub-par policing.
"If we're not going to provide them with services that they need from justice and RCMP officials, we should give them the resources to conduct the searches themselves," she said. "Right now, it's a broken system."
The commissioners have 10 community hearings planned by year’s end, and more next year. In early 2018, "institutional" hearings will bring in coroners, public prosecutors, child-welfare agencies, health authorities and school boards.
The inquiry report notes it "can’t resolve individual cases or declare who may be legally at fault," but had formed a committee of elders, former senior Crown attorneys, criminal-defence lawyers, criminologists and a forensic psychologist to examine issues flagged by families.
That committee "will review individual cases that are brought to our attention" and suggest authorities revisit cases where police and prosecutors seem to have fallen short, or where new evidence emerges.
On Wednesday, commissioner Qajaq Robinson called for a task force to go beyond that, and reopen cases as needed. North Wilson said that would be a positive step, especially if it’s Indigenous-led and independent from police.
Buller stunned some Winnipeg families Aug. 22, when she revealed to the Free Press that Wednesday’s report had already been drafted despite having held only one hearing at that point.
She said she’s had multiple conversations with bureaucrats since then, but couldn’t detail whether it improved any of the issues she’d flagged.
"Winnipeg (in October), I have to tell you, was a historical moment for all Canadians. It was the largest-ever sitting of a national inquiry; we had over 104 participants in five days sharing their truth," Buller said.
Asked why the commissioners waited until halfway through their term to reveal the multiple issues caused by Privy Council staff, Buller said: "we want to make sure that we’re approaching this in a collaborative way, so we can move forward."
The inquiry is further hampered by a mix of federal, provincial and territorial legislation. "We are also still attempting to recognize the jurisdiction of many different Indigenous legal systems, in addition to the 14 geo-political jurisdictions in Canada." It also wants to translate its findings into Indigenous languages, but says its budget makes that prohibitively expensive.
Read more by Dylan Robertson.
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