OTTAWA — Disheartened, disappointed, disbelieving. But still determined.
Indigenous women and leaders fighting to end violence against Indigenous women in Canada say that’s how they feel about Wednesday’s anniversary of the final report of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Families of victims who shared painful testimonies about the deaths and disappearances of their loved ones hoped their truths would spark immediate action and meaningful change.
But Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett’s announcement last week that Ottawa is delaying its national action plan because of the COVID-19 pandemic has instead sparked widespread dismay.
“These families opened their hearts and soul about their missing daughter, their mother, their sister, their aunt, their wives. And how heartbreaking is that when you feel there is some hope, that the government is truly listening to you, when nothing has been done in a year,” said Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
“For that excuse to be used, that’s an embarrassment to the government.”
The inquiry delivered its final report June 3, 2019 with a stunning conclusion that decades of systemic racism and human-rights violations had contributed to the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of Indigenous women and girls in Canada and that it constituted a genocide.
Many were hopeful the national action plan promised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when the report was released would be delivered in time for the June 3 anniversary this year — something Bennett promised in December.
Marion Buller, chief commissioner of the inquiry, said she doesn’t buy the pandemic as an explanation for the delay.
“The government has had 10 months prior to the real hit of COVID in order to lay the groundwork,” she said.
“To say COVID is slowing things down, or we can’t do our work because of COVID because we can’t meet, et cetera, really isn’t a viable excuse because of all the time that passed prior to the real big wave of COVID hitting Canada.”
The inquiry was launched in August 2016 and heard from more than 2,300 people over two years.
The recommendations for action spanned themes of health, justice, security and culture, including a number of calls for more effective responses to human-trafficking and sexual exploitation and violence, including in the sex industry.
A national action plan was at the top of the list.
Buller says she is concerned not only by the delay in the plan, but also by the lack of transparency in what work has been done and when the final plan will come.
Bennett would not commit to a timeline, citing COVID-19 uncertainties.
“We don’t know what, if anything, the government has done to move ahead,” Buller said.
“If they have done something, we don’t know who they’ve done it with. This is not publicly available information. There’s no place to go to find out what’s been happening.”
Michele Audette, who also served as an inquiry commissioner, said she wasn’t surprised to see Ottawa delay its response.
She believes even before the pandemic, the fall federal election and the countrywide protests over running a pipeline through traditional Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia earlier this year distracted the government.
“Of course I am also disappointed, I had so much hope before the inquiry and more during the inquiry and of course after also,” Audette said.
Rebecca Kudloo, president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, said she had hoped to see Ottawa’s plans for moving forward and finding healing in time for the anniversary.
“I’m disappointed … especially for the victims’ families who participated,” she said. “It was very painful and for it to be delayed again is disappointing to them.”
She pressed Bennett last week for a timeline, and is pushing for a new December deadline.
Buller and others who work closely with the families of victims say they are in the dark not only about timing, but also about who has been included in Ottawa’s work on this file.
The inquiry report explicitly called for the perspectives and participation of the families of the missing and murdered and survivors of violence to be included in implementation of the calls for justice.
But many families say they’ve not been part of those conversations, Buller said.
“They have been reaching out to me, asking, ‘What’s happening? What’s going on?’ Because they haven’t been consulted, they haven’t been involved,” she said.
“I don’t know if it’s a matter of government talking to other people and not the ones that I keep in touch with, if they’re not talking to anyone, I don’t know. Because there’s no way of finding out.”
On Monday, Trudeau said the COVID-19 pandemic has interfered with the government’s plans.
“Right now, in this challenge around COVID, many of our partner organizations are very much focused on supporting their communities,” he said.
“We continue to work on the strategy to fight gender-based violence and respond to the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls inquiry, but the work is affected because of COVID-19. But it remains a priority not just for us but for all Canadians that we will continue to work on.”
Tuesday, as he consistently has, Trudeau avoided agreeing with the inquiry’s conclusion that the treatment of Indigenous women in Canada constitutes a genocide when a reporter asked him.
“Very strong words are necessary” to talk about an appalling history, he said, but he prefers to focus on reconciliation, partnership and progress.
“There are lots of words that can be used, we need to use them, and we need to move forward.”
Many grassroots organizations haven’t waited for governments to act, including the Native Women’s Association, which was instrumental in pushing the federal government to hold the inquiry.
The association will hold a virtual event on June 3 to detail steps taken over the last year by Indigenous women to address and implement the calls for justice as well as a list of recommendations to the government for moving forward on a plan.
Whitman said she sent these recommendations to Bennett’s office twice in the last month, but hasn’t received any response.
“That’s really disheartening for the families, and that’s where I go back to. This is about the families.”
National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations said Indigenous leaders are firm in their resolve to ensure Canada keeps its promises to make the country safer for Indigenous women and girls.
“When it comes to dealing with ending violence against Indigenous women and girls, nothing is acceptable. We have to move on this sooner than later.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2020.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press