01/17/2017 13:11 EST | Updated 01/18/2018 00:12 EST

Little progress on info units for families of missing, murdered indigenous women

OTTAWA — Nearly six months after Ottawa promised millions of dollars to help the families of missing or murdered indigenous women and girls navigate the justice system, only Ontario appears anywhere near getting its program off the ground.

"It's quite concerning for families," said Bernadette Smith, whose sister, Claudette Osborne, went missing from Winnipeg nearly nine years ago.

When the Liberal government unveiled the details of the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women last August, Justice Canada offered up $11.7 million over three years so that provinces and territories could set up family information liaison units within their existing victims services departments.

The units are meant to complement the work of the inquiry by giving families somewhere to turn when they are seeking more details about their loved ones from government institutions — including police, prosecutors, coroners and child welfare services — or support for dealing with trauma.

The inquiry is expected to begin its hearings this spring, but across the country, the family information liaison units are still far from being a reality.

"There are still families (whose) loved ones are going missing," said Smith.

"There's nowhere for them to go. There's nowhere for them to seek support in terms of having someone to advocate for them with the police."

Ontario is the only province that has set up its family information liaison unit, but even that one is not yet fully operational.

Yasir Naqvi, the provincial attorney general, said Tuesday that he had recently hired a special adviser — the relative of an indigenous woman whose murder remains unsolved — to support the work of both the unit and the inquiry.

The adviser, whom the ministry did not immediately identify, "will ensure that the voices and needs of families are respected and heard in the design and delivery of the (unit)," Naqvi said in a statement.

The unit is currently based in Toronto, but the government expects to set up field offices within community-based indigenous health organizations, tentatively planned for Sudbury, Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout.

There will be toll-free numbers at each field office.

Other provinces are still working out the details.

Alberta, for example, has submitted its grant application to the federal government, but has not yet received approval.

"In the meantime, we're doing as much work as possible to make sure Alberta's (family information liaison unit) will be operational once Ottawa gives us the go-ahead," Jason van Rassel, a spokesman with the Alberta justice ministry, wrote in an email.

Manitoba and B.C. are in a similar position, while Saskatchewan is still in talks with Ottawa to better understand the parameters of the funding.

Nunavut is still working through the application and the Yukon is consulting with families and others on the planning and design. Quebec has said it would devote the federal funding to providing additional services through its existing victims services structures.

Neither the Northwest Territories nor the Atlantic provinces had any updates since last October.

"We are still assessing the demand for the service and how the unit could be set up in P.E.I.," Katie MacDonald, a spokeswoman for the provincial government, wrote in an email, adding that they encourage families to contact victims services in the meantime.

Smith said she finds it strange that provincial governments should have had to submit proposals.

"We know what the needs are in the provinces ... Just start allocating the funds."

Justice Canada, which did not respond to a request for an update Tuesday, also promised another $4.5 million to support victims services projects giving direct help to the families of missing or murdered indigenous women and girls.

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