Survivors, families 'discouraged' by lack of communication from MMIW inquiry

The commission heading up a long-awaited inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) gets low marks when it comes to keeping victims' families in the loop, according to the first report card issued by the Native Women's Association of Canada.

"Families and loved ones of the MMIWG were discouraged by the lack of communication from the inquiry following its official date of establishment on September 1, 2016," NWAC president Francyne D. Joe said Thursday in a news release. "They deserved to have some communication about how and when they could expect to provide their testimonies."

'Many concerns and questions requiring response remain unanswered.' - Francyne D. Joe, president, Native Women's Association of Canada

The $53.8-million independent inquiry, led by five commissioners, is still being set up, and is not expected to start hearing formal testimony from the families until spring. The commissioners are expected to submit an interim report in fall 2017, and a final report by the end of 2018.

The NWAC intends to issue a quarterly report on how well the inquiry is meeting its directives and mandates as it progresses using a colour-coded grading system: green for pass, yellow for action required, red for fail and grey for insufficient information. 

So far, it's all yellows and greys, according to NWAC's first report card. Notably, the commission gets yellow grades for not doing enough to communicate with the affected family members.

"Many concerns and questions requiring response remain unanswered," Joe said. "The lack of official phone numbers, emails, and use of personal social media accounts remains a concern. This unofficial and unsecured style of communication has led to inconsistent messaging and the perception of favouritism by commissioners, as they meet unofficially with some family members but not others."

'Wounded' families, survivors

Sharon Johnson, whose sister Sandra Johnson was killed in 1992 in Thunder Bay, Ont., is just one family member who has been unhappy with the progress so far.

Speaking to CBC News in July 2016, Johnson said it was unfair that families were learning about the inquiry's activities through social media. 

"I can see the frustration from some of the families as they try to figure out what's going on," she said. "I think we should hear from the government, in plain writing."

A lack of communication, as well as the inability to set timelines, has "wounded" families and survivors, the report said.

The commission is also lacking in areas like community relations with families and transparency. Many other areas cannot yet be graded at this early stage in the process. 

Terms of reference 'problematic' 

On August 3, the federal government revealed the commission's terms of reference (ToR), which outline the mandate of the inquiry to identify systemic causes of violence and recommend "concrete action" to help end violence against Indigenous women and girls.

But the NWAC has identified some problem areas within the terms.

"We've been very vocal in our concerns regarding the lack of specific guidelines in the terms of reference of the inquiry," Joe said in her statement. 

For instance, during the pre-inquiry consultation phase — when 18 face-to-face sessions were conducted between government, family members and Indigenous organizations across the country — families pressed the government to look into police conduct and practices, and even to reopen individual cases.

However, according to the ToR, commissioners will only focus on violence prevention and not on police investigations.

Culturally appropriate counselling services for survivors and family members, according to the ToR, will be limited to the duration of their appearance before the commission, "in direct disregard of the fact that trauma does not have a finite timeframe," the report said.

And there is no mention of addressing changes to the way justice system responds to families and survivors, "as many have had extremely negative experiences navigating the system and felt they were treated disrespectfully."

"[The] NWAC encourages the inquiry to be as transparent as possible and to provide families with the resources necessary to access the commission," Joe said. 

A spokesperson for the commission declined to comment on the NWAC report card.

"The national inquiry has just received the report from NWAC and will review with interest," Michael Hutchinson, the commission's recently appointed director of communications, wrote in an email to CBC News Thursday.

In December 2016, the commission told CBC News that commissioners have started holding biweekly conference calls with the NWAC, Pauktuutit and other Indigenous organizations to try to improve communication. Also in December, the commission launched its official website, which has information for victims families.

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