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Launching Inquiry, Indigenous Affairs Minister Says 'Racism and Sexism in This Country Kill'

Families of missing and murdered women to be consulted, but insist on being more involved.

By David P. Ball 8 Dec 2015 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

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Lorelei Williams performs with Butterflies in Spirit, a dance troupe of missing and murdered women's families she founded. Photo by Farah Williams.

Lorelei Williams will always remember Dec. 8 because it would have been her cousin Tanya Holyk's 40th birthday. Holyk's DNA was found on serial killer Robert Pickton's farm, but he was never tried for her murder; her aunt Belinda Williams remains missing.

Now, Williams will also remember Dec. 8 because today the federal government officially launched its national inquiry into at least 1,200 disappearances and murders of Aboriginal women across the country.

Williams was one of many advocates and family members who praised the start of an inquiry they've demanded for many years.

"I'm overwhelmed with emotions because of this," said the founder and director of Butterflies in Spirit, a dance troupe of missing and murdered women's family members. "I'm grateful, excited, but sad at the same time. I still find it hard to believe this is actually happening -- we've been fighting so hard for a national inquiry."

Speaking on Parliament Hill at the announcement of the inquiry's first "design" phase, Canada's Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said it's time for Canadians to understand that the issue is of life-or-death urgency.

"Racism and sexism are a huge part of this," she told reporters. "We need to hear those stories so Canadians understand that really, racism and sexism in this country kill."

The words signal what could be a broad scope to the as-yet-unnamed inquiry commissioners' mandate, but Bennett and other ministers would not speculate on what areas would be examined, saying terms of reference would be determined after extensive consultations with families and organizations.

"We will listen clearly to their voices," promised Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. "No inquiry, as we know, can undo what has happened, nor can it restore what we have lost. But it can help us design ways forward… Early calls to action have been met by silence; they deserve better."

Families need funds to participate, says father

But some families questioned Wilson-Raybould's reluctance to answer questions about whether families and advocacy organizations would be granted legal standing in the inquiry, or receive funding to participate. That was a particularly controversial issue in an earlier provincial inquiry into missing and murdered women in British Columbia that saw organizations and a lawyer resign in protest over limited funding and a narrow mandate.

Rick Frey and his wife Lynn lost their daughter Marnie who was last seen in late 1997, age 24. He said it took the RCMP three months to pass their missing person report on to Vancouver police.

It will take a lot more than an inquiry to regain his family's trust in authorities, Frey said.

"To see all the people we laid all our trust in -- the police and the system -- and what they did wrong, how do you get people like us who have lost our daughters to trust them again?" he asked. "I know there's good people in there, but it's really hard to trust them. Hopefully, they've learned a little bit … but I'm suspicious."

Frey said that the inquiry should place special scrutiny on Canada's national police force, the RCMP. He also said that it would be unconscionable not to provide funding and legal standing to family members and organizations.

"The family members cannot afford to go wherever they have to go to sit in on this," he said. "Without a question, you have to provide funding for the people who participate in it."

'Do it right'

Status of Women Minister Patricia Hajdu said that despite forming only four per cent of the Canadian population, Indigenous women make up over 16 per cent of the country's homicide victims. The RCMP initially questioned data from the Native Women's Association of Canada suggesting there were nearly 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women, but last year the force scanned its records and found nearly 1,200 such cases.

The government announced that the inquiry would take place in two phases, the first a "design phase" beginning yesterday that will involve immediately reaching out to families of the missing this week, Aboriginal organizations next week, and cross-country consultations in the coming months.

The second phase, Bennett said, would be the inquiry process itself. "We hope to be able to announce that next year in the spring," she said.

Williams hopes the government will speak with her, as well as with the Vancouver-based Missing and Murdered Women's Coalition, of which her group is a member.

If asked for advice, she'll tell commissioners: "If you're going to do this inquiry, do it right. Don't let it be like the Oppal inquiry where they started off wrong, they had stuff set in stone already."

Nevertheless, Williams said that the national inquiry won't necessarily bring a sense of closure or justice for her missing aunt and murdered cousin.

"It's hard to say how this will bring justice for her," she said, "but hopefully it will prevent this from happening to other families."  [Tyee]

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