First Nations groups and organizations from across the province are raising concerns over the long-waited national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
Last week, the federal government announced the five commissioners who will lead the national inquiry as well as its terms of reference.
Mary Teegee, Carrier Sekani Family Services (CSFS) director of child and family services, said the recently announced terms of reference do not have a clear mandate to review policing practices and the justice system.
“We know anecdotally through research and through the pre-inquiry sessions that the failing of the justice system to protect Indigenous women and girls and to really respond quickly is an issue,” she said.
Joni Conlon, CSFS community safety coordinator who also works in the Highway of Tears Initiative, said one of her concerns is that the Highway of Tears may not have enough representation in the national inquiry.
While the RCMP says at least 18 women went missing or were murdered along Hwy. 16 and the adjacent Hwy. 97 and Hwy. 5 since the 1970s, many people living in Northern B.C. believe that number could be higher.
“We do have to have direct representation of the north,” said Conlon. “Our communities have been experiencing this issue [of missing and murdered Aboriginal women] for years.”
According to the federal government, the commission has been mandated to, if it so chooses, establish regional advisory committees – composed of families, loved ones and survivors – to advise on issues specific to various regions.
“We hope that our community members are going to be directly involved,” said Conlon.
The First Nations Summit, an organization that speaks on behalf of First Nations involved in treaty negotiations in B.C., has also criticized the terms of reference.
They say the terms of reference exclude critical elements, namely policing and compelling legal authority for provinces and territories to make this a truly national inquiry.
Grand Chief Edward John said there are also concerns that the terms of reference may repeat mistakes of past processes.
The First Nations Summit participated in the provincial Missing Women Commission of Inquiry in British Columbia, which was launched in 2010 and was overseen by former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal.
“Unfortunately, the scope of that inquiry did not address the full range of matters and limited participation by key groups,” said John.
The Coalition on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which initially came together in response to the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry in British Columbia, called the federal plan for the national inquiry “too vague.”
According to the coalition, the terms of reference fail to provide families with redress for inadequate police investigations into their missing or murdered relatives.
“The terms of reference only provides the commission with the authority to send families back to the local authorities whose very conduct is being questioned, providing no confidence that allegations of police misconduct will be meaningfully addressed,” says the coalition.
The national inquiry was launched on Dec. 8, 2015, and was followed by a three month pre-inquiry engagement process. During these three months, 18 face-to-face sessions were held from coast to coast, with over 2000 participants and over 4100 online submissions.
The commission will be provided $53.86 million by the federal government over two years to complete its mandate by the end of 2018.
– With files from Catherine Matheson