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Isabel Daniels weeps as she speaks of her murdered cousin, Nicole Daniels, at the opening day of hearings at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Winnipeg in October 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)

Missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry: We must listen and act

Family members, survivors and loved ones spoke to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in Edmonton early this month.

Unspeakable sorrow and anguish — punctuated by anger and mixed with sharp criticism for police and victims services — accompanied the fond remembrances, quiet reflections and silences as survivors spoke of their loved ones. Those feelings of love are what sustain hope that the truth is being revealed.

Missing from the public record until now is the fact that each missing and murdered woman was loved. The hearing rooms vibrated with emotions.

Finding the truth and honouring it is crucial to the global idea of human dignity supported by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In his closing remarks to the Edmonton inquiry, Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Wilton Littlechild listed 11 international legal instruments that uphold human dignity and the rights of Indigenous women. Though Canada is a signatory to these agreements, they have yet to influence the analysis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Devaluation of lives

Absent from the public dialogue is the relationship between our value of human dignity and the systematic devaluation of the lives of our relations. Whether we are settlers or Indigenous, the missing and murdered Indigenous women and their families are our relations.

The idea that we are all related comes from Cree Elder Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildebrandt, who documented the Elders’ interpretation of treaty relations in Saskatchewan: We share this place based on mutual respect that acknowledges kinship among all creatures.

To attempt to repair this absence, the federal government has mandated the National Inquiry to use truth-telling to bring honour and respect to the Indigenous lives of those missing or murdered.

As a settler who has lived most of my life on Treaty Six territories, an educator of Human Service workers whose professional ethic requires them to be respectful, a scholar concerned with gender justice, and a person who takes my commitments to global citizenship seriously, I attended the hearings. I have listened with my heart and I have learned from it. I have heard truth. I came away from the 2017 hearings with a strong conviction: We all need to hear this truth.

Robert Pictou, father of Virginia Pictou Noyes, displays a photo of his daughter as he attends the National Inquiry in Membertou, N.S. in Oct. 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

From this truth, we must make the broad social analysis that deals with our structural inequalities. Government commissions can be be bogged down by bureaucracy, but they don’t have to be; they have the potential to leverage resources and make actionable change.

Insult to injury

A common theme of the testimony is that multiple generations have been wounded and harmed by the loss of their loved ones.

The initial loss of a family member, or the uncertainty and gut-wrenching fear of not knowing what happened to them, has been compounded and intensified by interactions with investigating authorities and institutions.

“Don’t believe what the media says about my mum,” said several family members. The witnesses attested to extensive and profound effects of the loss and police investigations on survivors and their loved ones.

The list of acts of omission is long. Delays affected the opening of missing person’s files. Information-gathering was spotty. Investigations proceeded slowly. The gathering and use of evidence was inconsistent. The incomplete keeping of records hampered the prospect of criminal charges.

Families received inadequate updates or none at all. Lack of due diligence produced inconclusive findings. Suspicious causes of death tended not to result in criminal cases.

Speakers to the inquiry also supplied constructive suggestions and recommendations. Above all else, more, better and regular communication between police services and families is required. Families should receive assistance to advocate on behalf of the victims and their families.

Services and tool kits would enable searches for missing individuals to begin immediately. The contents of police files should be made available to families. Police files should be required to give regular updates, even when it seems there is “nothing to report.”

Also, these processes require higher level oversight and scrutiny by third parties. Support groups in communities and online groups need to be created and funded to guide families’ inquiries.

This is just a small amount of what I heard.

Sonia Bear, left to right, Evert Stone, and Lance Stone, the children of Silvia Stone who was murdered in 1981, during the National Inquiry in Saskatoon, on Nov. 21, 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards)

Patterns of injustice

In many ways we have made no progress.

Nearly 50 years ago, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women held public hearings in Edmonton. A group of six white women journalists addressed violence against women. The journalists told the Royal Commission that police practices were harmful to women. The police officers did not intervene or change their methods.

Those hearings took place in 13 cities across Canada. The hearing in Edmonton was the only public event at which violence against women was analyzed as a social problem and not a personal problem. Up until that point, violence against women was seen as the problem of a particular woman and her personal identity and circumstances.

But the commission discounted personal stories as lacking evidence and social scientific objectivity. Presenters were told in the opening remarks by the Royal Commission that they should not present personal stories, and the commission should not be expected to address them.

There was also testimony at the Royal Commission about the lack of services for Indigenous women arriving in Edmonton from northern and rural communities.

After arrival, and lacking friends and resources, their vulnerability could readily be exploited, according to Floyd Greisbach, a community development officer whose work on social justice issues in Edmonton is commemorated in the city. He recommended the establishment of Indian Friendship Centres and other supports to safeguard newcomers to Edmonton.

The presenters were not deterred. They invited the commissioners to review the records of the police courts to discover patterns of wrongdoing and injustices done by authorities and institutions. These incidents were reported by women and their family members who were victims of violence.

The Royal Commission investigations, however, did not result in transformational change, especially those involving institutions and structures. We cannot let another half a century go by without making change that will ensure personal safety, economic security and representation.

Commissioner Marion Buller listens before the start of hearings at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in Smithers, B.C., in Sept. 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

Justice must be done

It is not enough for justice to be done. Justice must also be seen to be done. Participants in the hearings of the MMIWG Inquiry stated repeatedly and unequivocally that justice has not been seen to have been done.

Clear guidance about Canada’s international obligations and commitments from the inquiry would hold Canada to the highest standard of conduct among and by governments.

Accountability is what the presenters demanded. Walking the talk, keeping promises made and modelling accountability. The need is urgent.

The official determination rests with the Commissioners’ authority, resources and wisdom to reach its conclusions. The commission needs to forge the path towards dignity, respect and good lives.

My city, Edmonton, has sponsored the creation of a large mural at the Churchill LRT station to commemorate missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The gesture is a reminder of the truth.

We must also follow through with action. Honouring their lives with love and respect is their due. So too is the end of gender-based and racialized violence.

Their lives mattered. They teach us to pursue justice, know the truth and seek peace for all creation.

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