Families of Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women Share Hopes for Future of Inquiry

June 7, 2017 Updated: June 7, 2017

WHITEHORSE—Relatives who poured out heart-wrenching stories of their missing or murdered loved ones in Yukon say the national inquiry must keep listening and adapting as it moves on to other communities.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls heard its first public testimony in Whitehorse last week and commissioners will spend the summer preparing for the next hearings in the fall.

The hearings, held inside a large white tent next to the Yukon River, were a “testing” to make sure the inquiry has it right when it goes elsewhere, said Chief Commissioner Marion Buller.

Buller said it takes time to develop relationships with families, elders, traditional healers, and support workers in each location.

“It would be very unfair and very unrealistic of us to just arrive uninvited into a town or a city and set up for a hearing. That would be so disrespectful of the people and their land,” she said in a recent interview.

“There’s no such thing as an inquiry in a can that you just open up and it creates itself. It takes a lot of groundwork to do this right.”

Shaun LaDue testified about his mother, who he said was beaten to death after he was taken from her as a baby. He said when the commissioners first came to Whitehorse in April for an advisory meeting, they were talking too much instead of listening.

People will realize that they are being heard and it’s powerful.
— Shaun LaDue

He confronted them with the criticism, they thanked him and adapted, he said.

“I think southern Canada, especially, is going to be pleasantly surprised when the commissioners get to their community and say, ‘OK, how would you like us to proceed?'” he said.

“People will realize that they are being heard and it’s powerful.”

Doris Anderson, president of the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council, said the commission needs to meet first with local grassroots groups like hers and continue to seek their help.

“They understand the families. They know the families. They’ve built trust with the families and that’s the first place they go,” she said.

Lawyer Joan Jack, whose sister-in-law Barbara Jack was murdered, was among the inquiry’s most outspoken critics in Whitehorse. She said the inquiry should be based on indigenous law and the lead lawyer should also be indigenous.

“From what I’ve experienced … they’ve got some internal developmental challenges that they need to reconcile before they hit the ground in the fall again,” she said.

Inquiry spokeswoman Bernee Bolton said it’s critical that the inquiry hires the right people and it’s proud of its legal team, which has both indigenous and non-indigenous lawyers.

“We are working to ensure that indigenous law is revitalized through this process, while respecting the Canadian legal framework as set out by the governing legislation,” she added.

She said the inquiry respects the ground work done by grassroots organizations and outreach to them is part of community relations efforts.

The inquiry hasn’t announced which communities it will visit in the fall. Over the coming weeks, staff will plan and implement a strategy to support participation of families and survivors in the inquiry, said Bolton.

Lorelei Williams, a Vancouver-based advocate who has criticized the inquiry for failing to adequately reach out to families, said she feels more hopeful about its future after attending the Whitehorse hearings to support a friend.

She said families were respected and commissioners and staff were available to answer questions. However, she urged the inquiry to improve transparency, communication, and “after care” for traumatized speakers.

“It wasn’t what I expected. I expected a huge mess,” said Williams in an interview in Vancouver. “If I hadn’t been there, I would probably still be freaking out down here.”

From The Canadian Press