TORONTO — When hearings began in the long-demanded inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in September 2016, Anita Ross experienced a rare moment of happiness in a year marked by tragedy.
That February, her 16-year-old daughter, Delaine Copenace — a Johnny Cash fan who was “just starting to come out of her shell” — went missing during a walk in Kenora, Ontario, where she lived. She was found dead in a nearby lake wearing her favorite T-shirt three weeks later. A coroner ruled out foul play and labeled her death an accidental drowning, a conclusion Ross rejects.
Ross was hopeful that the two-year, nearly 54 million Canadian dollar inquiry into the systemic reasons for the disproportionate number of indigenous women and girls who face violence, are murdered or go missing would bring justice and closure.
But now, after having testified before the inquiry in Thunder Bay, Ontario, she and others lack confidence that it will bring about the changes that it promised.
“I felt that it was a waste of a six-hour drive there and a six-hour drive back,” she said.
Her feelings are echoed in a blistering report released this week that concludes that the inquiry is unlikely to achieve its mandate of investigating and reporting on the systemic causes of all forms of violence against indigenous women and girls. It also finds that “unacceptable” breakdowns in “communication, transparency and accountability” are “effectively re-traumatizing families.”
The result, according to the report released by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, a nonprofit established in 1974 that played an instrumental role in pushing for the inquiry, is that “an opportunity has been missed to communicate the realities of violence against indigenous women and solutions to end it.”
While 4 percent of women in Canada are indigenous, a 2014 report from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found that they accounted for 16 percent of female homicides between 1980 and 2012. A Statistics Canada homicide report in 2016 found that indigenous women are fives times more likely to be victims of homicide than non-indigenous women.
The report is the NWAC’s third “report card” since the inquiry was announced in December 2015, and it assesses 15 areas taken from the inquiry’s promised objectives. This report card finds the inquiry failing in five areas — an improvement from the last one, which found it failing in 10.
One failure of the inquiry, according to the NWAC, is a lack of communication with families about basic details of the community hearings, such as when, where and how they would take place, and how families could be reimbursed for their travel costs — preventing many from testifying.
Ross said she heard about the hearings in Thunder Bay only by word of mouth. She was notified of the date of her testimony just a week before it was scheduled and was able to attend only because of donations. She is still waiting for the emotional and mental-health support that was promised to those who testify.
The report also criticized the inquiry’s failure to allow marginalized groups, such as those who are homeless, in child welfare or incarcerated, to participate.
“The needs of the families, as well as parties with standing and the public, have been disregarded for the most part,” the report said.
Marion Buller, the inquiry’s chief commissioner and the first indigenous female judge in British Columbia, acknowledges that her group has struggled with communication. While the money for travel costs comes out of the inquiry’s budget, she said, the federal government administers the claims, and the inquiry has to follow its rules for reimbursement. She added that the two-year deadline was tight and made it difficult to seek out testimony from marginalized groups.
The inquiry, which says that 1,273 families have testified, asked the government for a two-year extension in March and an additional 50 million Canadian dollars to finish its task. Without both, Buller said, the inquiry’s report will amount to a “superficial analysis of the obvious.”
A decision has not yet been made on whether the extension and extra funds will be granted.
The fate of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls has for decades been a festering wound in many of Canada’s indigenous communities. They have alleged that police often were late to investigate disappearances and quick to label unexplained deaths as suicides or accidental drownings, and that politicians were dismissive of their concerns.
The wound only deepened under the administration of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau’s predecessor, who said that the brutalization of indigenous women and girls was not “high” on his “radar.”
But from the time Trudeau announced the inquiry — fulfilling one of the Liberal government’s key campaign promises — it has seemed to be in disarray.
“When we first started, all the commissioners and I had was a piece of paper and a cellphone,” Buller said. “We’re designing the car, building the car, driving the car and loading passengers into the car all at the same time.”
Dozens of people associated with the inquiry have been fired or resigned since hearings began, including Marilyn Poitras, one of the inquiry’s commissioners. In her resignation letter, issued in July 2017, Poitras said the “status quo colonial model of hearings” doomed the inquiry to fail.
The NWAC’s report says that though this hearing structure was eventually changed, the change was never communicated to families, and many who were put off by the original setup did not participate.
Families and other advocacy groups asked the government to reset the inquiry and change the terms of its mandate in 2017, but those calls were rejected.