Is it Even Possible for the MMIWG National Inquiry To Do Better?

The problem may well be the inquiry process itself

✎  Wayne K. Spear | November 2, 2017 • Indigenous Affairs

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HE NOVEMBER 1 interim report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) is the first bit of positive news from an organization known for headlines like these:

– National inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls postpones first family fall hearing
– Trudeau sidesteps calls to reboot MMIW inquiry amid calls for resignations
– Manitoba families push for Indigenous-led MMIW inquiry, want commissioners to resign
– Government policies making it difficult for MMIW inquiry to do its work on time: chief commissioner
– Family members say Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women inquiry a failure; call for ‘hard reset’

There are only a few plausible reasons that an agency will tumble into the category “problem plagued,” as the National Inquiry clearly has. One is suggested by a headline, above: government policies. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was a mess in the beginning, because it was a micromanaged sub-department of the federal bureaucracy, subject to the government’s byzantine rules and lacking executive authority. Early on the TRC headlines had to do with things like the delays faced by the Commission while waiting for ministerial authorization to order furniture and paint offices. The work stalled and morale took a dive and everyone wondered if the TRC would be able to restore the lost trust and confidence, just as they wonder today about the wayward inquiry into murdered and missing women and girls.

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TRC Commissioners came and went—again, just as they have at the National Inquiry. I interviewed a number of people who told me the TRC departures were a result of political interference from the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. I was told that political agendas had contaminated the organization and made cooperation among the three commissioners impossible. Internal politics and political rivalry is a second plausible cause of dysfunction.

The third is personality conflict, and doubtless there’s some of this going on at the National Inquiry, as there was at the TRC and in every organization I’ve ever seen that was staffed by members of homo sapiens.

A moment ago I said that the interim report was the first bit of positive news from the National Inquiry, but that’s not entirely the case. The report has already been trashed by those who don’t see it as positive at all. Pam Palmater wrote on Twitter that “if u subtract references notes graphics definitions & recycled #MMIWG NI promo, then all that remains is a mini-literature review. #disgrace.” I wouldn’t say her assessment is wrong, but only that her expectations are high. Just as the expectations of the TRC were high. And not only high, but misguided.

At the onset of the TRC’s work, I had conversations with Indian residential school survivors who made no secret of their pleasure that justice was about to be served. I had read the Commission’s Terms of Reference and didn’t have the heart to tell them that there’d be no such thing. The lawyers who created the TRC are the lawyers fighting the Human Rights Tribunal ruling that orders Canada to bring on-reserve child and family services spending to parity with its non-native equivalent. They are the lawyers who have absorbed $110,000 in legal fees fighting a $6,000 dental procedure required by an Indigenous girl. The government’s lawyers are risk-averse and tenacious and not at all in the business of exposing their client to the messy inconveniences of justice.

The National Inquiry’s interim report is a literature review, as Pam Palmater says, because the Terms of Reference say so:

an interim report, to be submitted before November 1, 2017, setting out the Commissioners’ preliminary findings and recommendations, and their views on and assessment of any previous examination, investigation and report that they consider relevant to the Inquiry.

There’s even a helpful list of reports for review, such as the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Invisible Women: A Call to Action, What Their Stories Tell Us: Research findings from the Sisters In Spirit initiative, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia. The TRC, like the National Inquiry, is mandated to “sit at the times and in the places, especially in Indigenous communities in Canada, that the Commissioners consider appropriate” for the “gathering of statements by qualified trauma-informed persons.” It is not mandated to go after the police or to point a finger at the corrupt or inept. The MMIWG National Inquiry is furthermore mandated to submit its findings, on or before November 1, 2018 (“without expressing any conclusion or recommendation regarding the civil or criminal liability of any person or organization”) and a list of non-binding recommendations.

So far the MMIWG National Inquiry has been a disappointment, but I wonder how much it is within the power of this organization to do better. To what extent is the National Inquiry hindered by Canada? Over the years the federal government has mastered the art of politically expedient, toothless commissions which provide ministerial speaking points and aspirational calls to action that may be ignored or co-opted. The independent or arms-length inquiry, with powers of subpoena, has given way to therapeutic talking circles micromanaged by the Privy Council Office. Recent experience suggests that the inquiry process is broken, and it’s at this dysfunctional process itself we should be directing our ire.

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