The new Liberal government is moving quickly on its commitment to launch a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls with the support of all political parties. Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, recently announced that the government will be undertaking a pre-inquiry consultation process with further details to be released by the end of November.
This decision is critical. It meets the demand of Indigenous women, affected families and civil society stakeholders that they be consulted and involved in every stage of the inquiry process, including the very preliminary stage.
In this politically opportune moment when action is forthcoming, our newly elected government officials will do everyone a disservice if they rush the pre-inquiry consultation. If the government doesn't get this process right, the inquiry will fail because it will not be focused or inclusively designed to accomplish the goals of the very stakeholders -- the Indigenous women, affected families, communities and civil society organizations -- whose effective involvement in the inquiry is critical.
We need a pre-inquiry consultation that is thorough enough to get it right -- "it" being the operating framework of the inquiry, which includes the terms of reference, criteria for appointing commissioners and staff, methods of public engagement, inquiry research focus areas, budgetary commitments and the like.
We also need the pre-inquiry consultation to be undertaken by independent third-party representatives. There's too much at stake and there's too great a conflict of interest to do it any other way.
Moving forward in this way is learning from the mistakes of past inquiries.
The Missing Women's Commission of Inquiry (MWCI) established by the province of British Columbia is a recent example of an inquiry that failed in its intent and failed the people it claimed to serve. It lost credibility and trust with the women whose lives were its subject; the affected communities; and front line service and advocacy organizations, because they were, in effect, excluded from the inquiry. And today, the majority of the 56 MWCI recommendations from the 2012 final report are unimplemented or still "in progress" with no accountability mechanism to promote government transparency and reporting on the status of the recommendations.
A coalition of Indigenous women's, social justice and human rights organizations formed as a result of the MWCI in B.C., and the shared experience of being shut out of the inquiry process. The coalition has made a public call to the new government to be vigilant in learning from the mistakes of the MWCI. It is clear in its demands for a pre-inquiry consultation in a letter to government:
- The pre-inquiry consultation must include Indigenous women and communities, as well as related civil society stakeholders at the pre-inquiry stage and at every subsequent stage of the inquiry process;
- The inquiry's operating framework should be designed through a public, transparent pre-inquiry consultation that takes into account the views of stakeholders from across the country; and
- The terms of reference must include the root causes of violence.
The demand for effective consultation with affected communities and civil society stakeholders is also a recommendation of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) in its January 2015 report. The IACHR's recommendations were made following its investigation of missing and murdered Indigenous women in British Columbia, which included a review of the MWCI.
The demands of the coalition are also reflected in Blueprint for an Inquiry -- a report that looks at the flaws of the MWCI and makes recommendations for how to conduct inquiries with marginalized communities. Everyone involved in the inquiry process, including the pre-inquiry consultation, should read this report if they haven't already.
There is no question that a pre-inquiry consultation must centre on building trust and privileging openness, transparency and the voices of Indigenous women and affected communities.
It must do this, and it can do this. But it probably can't before the next National Roundtable. And that's okay. A pre-inquiry consultation takes time. If the inquiry itself starts in the summer, as recently indicated, because the government took the time to get the pre-consultation right, that would be a positive thing.
If we don't consult properly now, we've sunk the inquiry before it begins. Let's all remember this.
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