OTTAWA — The commissioners of Canada's national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls say the government's decision to extend their work by only six months does a "disservice" to victims, survivors and families.
Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, announced Tuesday that the inquiry — which had requested an extension of two full years — is getting only six more months to complete its hearings and until April 30, 2019, to submit a final report.
"In seeking a two-year extension, we were striking a balance between the urgency of the issues and the need to do this work thoroughly," chief commissioner Marion Buller said in a statement.
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"Now, we believe political expediency has been placed before the safety of Indigenous women, girls and (LGBTQ and two-spirit) people."
The commission, which has been plagued by chronic delays, staff turnover and complaints from families about disorganization, poor communication and a lack of transparency, was originally supposed to have its final report ready by Nov. 1 of this year.
The Native Women's Association of Canada warned last month that the ongoing challenges were obscuring the needs of victims and survivors, with the unanswered question of a deadline extension adding to the uncertainty.
Bennett said the decision to extend the mandate by just six months was made in part because provinces and territories were not unanimously supportive of extending the terms of reference for the inquiry into next year.
"In the conversation with provinces and territories it was clear ... that we weren't going to get an extension of the terms of reference from some of them," Bennett told a news conference.
She called the extension a "creative solution" that allows the terms of reference to be honoured in all of the provinces and the territories, meaning the commission will have to complete its research and witness testimony by Dec. 31.
At least one commissioner served notice Tuesday that she would reconsider her role with the inquiry as a result of the government's decision.
"I am currently filled with a sentiment of incomprehension and deep disappointment," Michele Audette said in a statement in French.
"I am giving myself the next few weeks to reflect, to analyze the decision, give my personal opinion and validate my future participation in the work of the national inquiry."
Bennett would not say which provinces rejected the request to extend the terms of reference, but did indicate there was more than one.
Tuesday's decision also follows consultations with survivors, families, Indigenous organizations and provinces and territories.
"We found support for giving the inquiry more time to submit its final report, but little support for the commission's mandate to extend beyond the next election," Bennett said. There are more survivors and families who want to take part, she added.
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"The commissioners will decide how to use this additional time to hear from the remaining families and survivors, further examine institutional practices and policies and undertake the research necessary inform their recommendations on the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada."
After submitting the final report, the commission will have until June 30 of next year to wind down its operations.
Department officials say they will work with the inquiry to determine the budget. The Liberal government had initially earmarked $53.8 million and two years for the inquiry to complete its work.
In March, inquiry officials asked for a two-year extension in order to give commissioners until Dec. 31, 2020, to make recommendations and produce findings.
The inquiry's interim report, released in November, called for an investigative body to re-open existing cold cases and for an expansion of an existing support program for those who testify.
The government says it will spend $9.6 million over five years to support the RCMP's new National Investigative Standards and Practices Unit, and will fund a review of police policies and practices regarding their relations with Indigenous Peoples.
An additional $21.3 million will be provided to expand health support provided by the inquiry.
"Together with Indigenous peoples and partners across the country, we continue our collective efforts to help prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls, and protect future generations," Bennett said.