Why is a national public inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women needed?

By Craig Benjamin, Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Ten years ago, when Amnesty International released its first research report on missing and murdered Indigenous women, we did not call for a national inquiry.

At the time, we felt that the most, if not all, the elements of what government needed to do to address the threats to Indigenous women’s lives had already been identified by frontline service providers, affected families and communities, and previous inquiries. Then, as now, what was urgently needed was the political will to consolidate all these measures into a comprehensive, coordinated national action plan.
Ten years have now passed since that initial report. And despite the unprecedented public attention to the issue, and the fact that murders and disappearances continue to steal Indigenous women and girls from their families and communities, Canada still does not have a plan to stem this violence.

Instead of a comprehensive and coordinated national action plan, government response remains piecemeal and scattershot. The voices of affected families and communities have been ignored in two separate Parliamentary committee hearings which served only to endorse current government policies. Government officials continue to make statements that simplify and distort the issues, ignoring the evidence that violence is pervasive and fueled by discrimination and impoverishment.

It has become apparent that the urgently needed comprehensive, coordinated national response may never be put in place unless there is greater government accountability to the families of missing and murdered women and to all Canadians.

Amnesty International supports the calls for a national public inquiry as a means to hold the federal government to account.

  1. We need an inquiry to establish a benchmark against which the actions or inactions of government can be evaluated and held accountable.
  2. We need an inquiry so that the independent, credible expert who conducts the inquiry can lend her or his authority to the calls for action.
  3. We need a public inquiry so that the voices of families and affected communities will be listened to.
  4. As we have seen from the Parliamentary committees, other forms of hearings or discussion are unlikely to meet these needs.

It’s crucial that any inquiry be:

  • Well resourced;
  • Developed in collaboration with Indigenous women’s organizations; and
  • Accompanied by a clear commitment to act on its recommendations as part of a comprehensive and coordinated national action plan.

Amnesty International also recommends that such an inquiry be provided the resources and authority necessary to commission independent reviews of police or coroners records wherever the inquiry determines that there is sufficient credible evidence that bias or other factors may have led to inadequate investigation. The results of such reviews would provide important insight into necessary reforms in police procedures and training and could be instrumental in addressing unresolved concerns of families and communities who feel that investigations have been improperly neglected.

We acknowledge that legitimate concerns have been raised about such an inquiry. It’s clear that an inquiry is only a step toward a solution, and not the solution itself. It’s crucial that an inquiry not be an excuse to delay actions that can be taken immediately. It’s also vital that the inquiry doesn’t simply produce another body of recommendations that gather dust on government shelves.

That’s why an inquiry needs to be instituted from the outset with a clear a political and financial commitment to act on the outcomes.
Amnesty International was one of a number of organizations that reluctantly withdrew from the British Columbia provincial inquiry into the murder and disappearance of women from Vancouver’s downtown eastside. That inquiry had been structured in a way that created too many barriers to a full and fair examination of police and government conduct while at the same time denying affected families the supports they needed to fully participate. Lessons learned from that inquiry process should inform a future national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

In particular, Amnesty International endorses the report by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Pivot Legal Society and West Coast LEAF, Blue Print for an Inquiry: Learning from the Failures of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. Among other recommendations, this report calls for the terms of  references of any inquiry to be developed in full consultation with affected communities, that such terms of reference must be broad enough to address underlying systemic factors, and that witnesses from marginalized backgrounds receive all necessary, culturally appropriate supports and protections to ensure their full and effective participation.