Families of MMIW tear into commissioners at AFN AGA
- Katie Doke Sawatzky | July 27, 2017
By Tuesday afternoon at the Assembly of First Nations 38th Annual General Assembly, things were running two hours behind schedule. The delay might be expected on the second day of a three-day national gathering of chiefs and Elders, but one scheduled item the organizers didn’t budge on was the plenary session on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
When 4 p.m. arrived, affected families lined up behind the microphones on the floor. They stood for 30 minutes while National Inquiry Commissioners Michèle Audette and Brian Eyolfson spoke to the assembly.
Audette, who is from the Innu community of Mani Utenam, Québec, described what it was like for her at the beginning stages of the Inquiry.
“I thought I was going to jump into a process that has a roof, has rules, procedures, ways of doing a national inquiry such as this one with staff, with people, computers, phones and offices. In August (2016), we found out that our next two years would be based upon a piece of paper, the Order-in –Council,” she said.
Audette said that while the commissioners have studied the appropriate legislation on federal inquiries and met with families from across Canada over the past year, there’s been a lack of communication.
“I have been anxious for this moment because we were too silent and that needs to stop,” she said.
Audette explained the Inquiry is not like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She expressed that in order to be neutral, like a judge, she cannot speak to media or go to events like the TRC commissioners did.
Her speech did not placate the family members who spoke in response.
Gerri Pangman, from Peguis First Nation, spoke on behalf of her family about her sister Jennifer McPherson, who was killed in April 2013 in B.C. by a man who had killed another Indigenous woman seven years before. She said the Inquiry must involve the police and RCMP.
“To leave out the police in the terms of reference, it’s a failure and it’s a dishonour to my sister,” said Pangman. “The police failed my sister. How are you going to fix that?”
“If you want to help us, educate the police on how they should treat us Indigenous women and men,” Pangman’s mother, Betty, added.
Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, co-chair of Manitoba advocates for missing and murdered Indigenous women, simply told the commissioners they had failed and asked for them to step down.
“You failed in communications, you failed to bring trust, you failed to build relationships with families,” she said. “I’m calling for a hard reset as a family member.”
Bernice Catcheway spoke through angry tears about the way the RCMP didn’t take action soon enough after her daughter Jennifer went missing in June 2008. She said the first officer she spoke to in Portage la Prairie said Jennifer was probably just drunk and would come back in a week.
“Right across Canada there’s broken hearts, broken spirits because nobody’s listening to us,” said Catcheway.
Since it began in 2016 five staff members have left the two-year-mandated Inquiry and only one hearing has taken place in Whitehorse, Yukon.
Chair of the AFN Women’s Council Chief Denise Stonechild, who opened the session, said the Inquiry must have a families-first approach.
“If the Inquiry isn’t done right, it will damage the families and our people further,” she said.