Today the government of Canada launched the design process for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada. Amnesty International welcomes this announcement, which has been long called for by Indigenous women and girls, the families of women who have gone missing and been murdered, National Aboriginal Organizations, and human rights groups like Amnesty International. We are mindful of all the families we have worked with for so many years as part of our No More Stolen Sisters campaign–they are in our thoughts today and every day.
In the lead up to this announcement, many questions. What exactly is a National Inquiry? What can it accomplish? How will the voices of Indigenous women and girls and family members be heard?
To help answer some of these questions, and to assist those involved in preparations for the National Inquiry, the Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Indigenous Women (LSC), a nation-wide, ad hoc coalition of groups and individuals, has released a Frequently Asked Questions Resource on Public Inquiries.
This document is informed by an overview of applicable law, as well as an assessment of what past public inquiries have done. The responses to these FAQs contain information, rather than advice. They are limited to a description of what inquiries can do, and how commissions of inquiry identify and perform their mandates. This is a publicly accessible document that includes helpful links, and a suggested reading list for members of the public who would like to look into certain issues in greater detail on their own.
Following are a few excerpts from the FAQ:
Can an inquiry examine individual cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls?
It is important for the future Inquiry to ensure that all investigations of missing and murdered women are thorough and unbiased. It is also important to review cases in a way that highlights both positive practices where they exist, as well as system failings that need to be addressed. If this is consistent with the Commission of Inquiry’s terms of reference, it may be possible for it to examine individual cases. However, given the high volume of implicated cases, individual case reviews for all past cases may not be feasible. More importantly, a public inquiry may not be the most helpful or advantageous way to review individual cases. Rather, an independent civilian investigation unit whose sole purpose and focus is to investigate individual cases may be appropriate. Such a unit could liaise with the Commission but its mandate could extend beyond the life of the Commission. Ultimately, it will be important to ensure that any inquiry or civilian investigation unit reviewing individual cases is independent from government and accountable.
Who will be able to participate in these proceedings?
Participation in an inquiry may depend on the type or format of the proceedings. For open and informal proceedings, the Commission may encourage widespread public participation, usually by means of written comments submitted on paper or electronically, or by presenting to Commissioners in person, with the possibility of skype and other accessible means.
Adversarial hearings may require standing to participate. This means that people who want to participate in the hearing process will need to establish either: 1) how they are affected by the issues being addressed in the hearing, or 2) how their participation would further the public interest. In this situation, the Commission would have the discretion to determine how it will assess whether individual applicants should have standing. The Commission would also have the authority to determine who will be granted standing. In addition to granting standing to participate in this sort of proceeding, a Commission has power under the Inquiries Act to require the attendance of witnesses through subpoenas. While formal in nature, these adversarial proceedings do have the potential to delve into contested or unclear situations in search of a full picture of what has happened.
A Commission may also restrict participation to certain groups or individuals, depending on the issue being considered. For example, closed hearings may only be open to people who are personally invited.
How will members of the public know whether they can participate?
Once a Commission of Inquiry is established and has designed its process, there will likely be some form of public notice informing members of the public about upcoming opportunities to participate in the inquiry. Such notices should also specify the means by which members of the public and interested parties will be able to participate.
Could funding be available to inquiry participants?
A key issue for any Commission of Inquiry, and for its potential participants, is whether funding will be available to those from whom the Commission wishes to hear (i.e. to those granted standing). In the past, such funding has been available at some commissions for those taking part in either the fact-finding part of the Inquiry,2 or its policy deliberations. It is useful to explore the practices of past commissions to see how this funding is determined and what its limits have been, as each commission can establish its own rules and practices. However, as the Missing Women Inquiry in B.C. has demonstrated, it is essential that the government which establishes the Inquiry provide it with enough funding to permit it to grant funding to participants who need it.
Some experts have provided guidance for setting up future Commissions of Inquiry funding mechanisms.
What languages can an inquiry be conducted in?
There are no specific provisions in the Inquiries Act concerning which language an inquiry must use in its proceedings. Most national Commissions of Inquiry in the past have generally been conducted in either English, French, or both, though some have also enabled people to participate in Indigenous languages.
What support could be provided to participants in an inquiry including survivors and the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls?
Given that a Commission has the discretion to hire any staff it may require, and because it has the power to design its own process, it could ensure that support is provided to survivors, families, and others.
Can an inquiry integrate ceremony?
Yes. As a Commission has the discretion to create its own process, it has the authority to integrate ceremony.
The Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Indigenous Women (LSC) is a nation-wide ad hoc coalition of groups and individuals formed in 2014 following the murder of Inuit university student Loretta Saunders, to marshal resources that address violence against Indigenous women. The LSC was established in 2014 as a response to the alarming prevalence of violence and discrimination against Indigenous women and girls in Canada. The coalition is comprised of individuals and civil society organizations with interdisciplinary expertise on issues that impact Indigenous women, including human rights, gender equality, and constitutional law.