05/17/2017 05:09 EDT | Updated 05/20/2017 04:26 EDT

If family members worried about delayed MMIW inquiry, I have concerns: Bennett

OTTAWA — Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says she shares the concerns of those family members who are growing ever more anxious about the long-delayed public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

"The objective of striking the commission was two things — to stop the tragedy, but also the healing of the families," Bennett said Tuesday outside the House of Commons. "When the families have concerns, I have concerns."

Bennett was responding to questions about an open letter released Monday by more than 30 advocates, indigenous leaders and family members expressing their misgivings to the inquiry's chief commissioner.

The group, which published its comments on the website of Metis artist Christi Belcourt, said it is aware the commission faces a difficult challenge, but it noted immediate action must be taken to prevent damage and shift the current approach.

"Across the country, families, advocates, indigenous leaders, experts and grassroots people are loudly raising alarms that the inquiry is in serious trouble," the letter said.

"We are deeply concerned with the continued lack of communication that is causing anxiety, frustration, confusion and disappointment in this long-awaited process."

The commission is "totally arm's-length from government", Bennett said Tuesday, noting she looks forward to seeing the response to this letter from the commission.

In a statement, the inquiry said it has been meeting families, survivors, advocates and organizations, adding it is grateful for the feedback it has received.

"The honesty and directness of the advice is greatly respected," it said. "The gravity of the mandate of the national inquiry is at the forefront of our minds and hearts as we work to build the national inquiry."

The inquiry — expected to take two years and cost $53.8 million — is being conducted by Marion Buller, the first female First Nations judge in B.C., and four other commissioners.

The commission is set to hold its first public hearing May 29 in Whitehorse, but other community meetings won't take place until later in the fall at the earliest.

The inquiry mandate requires an interim report on its work in November, but a growing number of family members and survivors say they are unsure when they will get a chance to testify.

No other dates have been confirmed for additional hearings and the commission has yet to develop a database containing the names of the victims.

The commission said last week about 294 families have contacted the inquiry to express a desire to participate.

The two-year time frame for the inquiry is "clearly too short," said signatories of the letter published Monday, adding the commissioners should formally request an extension from the federal government.

"This will enable you to use the time this summer to seriously consider how the inquiry can be reformatted to address the myriad of concerns being raised widely across the country.''

Bennett wouldn't say if such a request would be granted.

"It is going to be very important that the commission explain what they are doing and their work plan," Bennett said. "We'll always consider what is best for the families."

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