John Fox went to the family consultations and meetings in Toronto and Ottawa as the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls got underway. He sent in written recommendations. He phoned the 1-800 number for family members who want to register to address the commission; he phoned it again and again, but each time, it went to voice mail. It was weeks before he got a call back; after several conversations with inquiry staff calls, he’s still not sure his name is on the list.
Fox, a member of Wikwemikong First Nation on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island, lost his daughter four years ago. Cheyenne Fox, a 20-year-old mother of one, fell to her death from the 24th floor of a Toronto condo building in what her father believes was murder, though police say they have no evidence of criminal activity.
After Cheyenne died, Fox intensified his efforts in the decades-long fight for a national inquiry, which was finally announced in October 2015, to probe why indigenous women and girls are about five times more likely to vanish or die violently than their non-indigenous counterparts. The RCMP report some 1,200 cases of unsolved homicides and disappearances across Canada; advocacy organizations put the number closer to 4,000. The inquiry commission will hold hearings across the country before issuing far-reaching recommendations for how to stop the ongoing crisis. The final report is due by the end of 2018.
Now, not nine months after the inquiry officially began, Fox has given up on it.
“It’s in shambles,” says Fox, who, together with fellow advocate and family member Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, spoke at a press conference on Parliament Hill last week to announce their intention to boycott the process ahead of the hearings beginning Tuesday. Fox says protesters will gather at future inquiry meetings to air their grievances and warn other families against taking part. “[The inquiry] had the opportunity to do something right,” he says. “They haven’t done it.”
While few have gone so far as to publicly call for a boycott, criticism of the inquiry has echoed across the country. In mid-May, more than 50 people, including family members, scholars and advocates, signed off on an open letter to the commission “raising alarms that the Inquiry is in serious trouble.” Days later, hereditary chief Bill Wilson — a prominent indigenous leader in B.C. who happens to be the father of federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould — called the inquiry “a bloody farce” in a widely circulated Facebook post. Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde issued a statement expressing support for families’ frustrations and reiterating its call for better communication. And dozens of families have aired their concerns in national media.
In addition to charges of poor communication, many family members were bitterly disappointed to learn that the inquiry’s terms of reference don’t explicitly include an examination of policing, despite widespread concerns about the quality of some investigations and racism within police forces. The process, says Fox, has been bureaucratic, disrespectful of traditions and plagued by delays. After months of silence, the commission promised to begin hearings this spring. The final straw for Fox and Wabano-Iahtail was the recent announcement that hearings wouldn’t start until the fall, aside from a gathering in Whitehorse this week.
“People are pissed off, they’re fed up, they’re angry, they’re hurt, they’re disappointed,” says Fox. “There are families out there that are at suicide risk.” It takes a lot for grieving family members to work up the courage to speak, says Fox. He likens it to tearing off a scab. “You have to build up yourself to be able to talk about some of these losses, and when you’re ready to talk, and then they close the door on you… it’s left that scab open.”
Brenda Wilson coordinates the Highway of Tears Initiative in northwest B.C., which works closely with families of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.“We’re feeling very insecure, we don’t know what’s happening with it and I don’t blame some of the families for boycotting it,” she says. Wilson’s younger sister, Ramona, was murdered in 1994 in Smithers, B.C.; the family has spent the decades since fighting for an inquiry.
Despite her longstanding involvement in the inquiry process, Wilson says she only received confirmation that local family meetings were cancelled the week those meetings were scheduled to happen, via a press release. Other families don’t even know the inquiry is underway; there’s been no outreach in many communities. The commission has left it up to families to follow its proceedings online — a challenge in rural and northern communities without reliable internet — and to contact an email address or a 1-800 number to register, a fact of which many aren’t aware. “It’s just been really confusing and information changes from one day to the next,” says Wilson.
Still, she wants the inquiry to go ahead. “To boycott it now would be back to the drawing board, back to day one, 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago,” says Wilson. “Although we want this to happen quickly, we do need to be patient.”
The inquiry’s chief commissioner, Marion Buller, says she understands the frustration. “Some families and survivors have worked on making this inquiry happen for 40 years, and they’ve been living with their loss and their grief for a very, very long time.” She’s aware of accusations that the inquiry is re-traumatizing families with delays; the commission is balancing that concern with the need to take time to design hearings that won’t cause further harm, she says. “It’s a matter of, for us, being as careful and thoughtful as we can at every stage of our work.” And communication with families and the public is going to improve, she says, attributing former challenges to a months-long period without a permanent communications director as the hiring process ground through sluggish federal bureaucracy. Buller says she hopes hearings in Whitehorse will allay some of the concerns, with people feeling supported to tell their stories and encourage others to come forward.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada, which spent decades advocating for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, began issuing “report cards” assessing the inquiry’s progress in January 2017. Its second report, released May 16, gives the inquiry a “fail” in 10 of its 15 categories. It notes that 300 families had contacted the commission, and only half have received a response. Those who did, according to the report, were put through an assessment to decide “whether or not the family will be able to speak in front of the Commissioners,” a process the organization says seems “cruel and unusual.”
NWAC interim president Francyne Joe says her organization has reached out to the commission numerous times after hearing concerns from families about “vetting” to try clarify but didn’t receive a response. But Buller is categorical: “There’s no vetting, there’s no screening, period,” she says.
“Nobody was expecting this type of adversity coming from the inquiry itself,” says Joe. While NWAC is still committed to working with the inquiry, she applauds the families calling for a boycott. “It really tells me they’re remaining strong in this adversity as they’ve always done,” she says. “The fact that they’re using their voices, I’m proud of them.”
While Joe has been hearing rumblings of a boycott in recent weeks, she says many families are still “at the unsure stage.” If the commission shows they’re listening and responding, those rumblings will die down. “But if they fail, I am concerned that you’re going to see more families stating … they’re going to boycott,” she says. “And that would be the saddest, that would be the tragedy, if this inquiry were to fail.”