The federal government has officially launched a public inquiry into why so many indigenous girls and women in Canada meet violent ends, an examination that families and organizations had demanded for years, and in some cases decades.

Five commissioners will spend two years trying to determine the systemic factors behind the inordinate number of indigenous females who have been murdered or gone missing. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett released the terms of reference on Wednesday.

But some of the people who lobbied for a public inquiry are still concerned that the families of the victims are not being shown a direct route to justice, that the roles of police and other agencies will not be investigated adequately and there is not enough support to deal with the trauma that will result.

The commissioners, who were named at the same time, will start their work in September, and are expected to return with a final report at the end of 2018. The cost of the effort has been boosted from $40-million to $53.86-million after the preliminary consultations proved the original budget was inadequate.

And for the first time in Canada’s history, all provinces and territories have individually endorsed an inquiry’s terms of reference. The federal government says this will allow the commissioners to look at issues under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, including policing and child-welfare systems.

The “inquiry was needed to achieve justice and healing and to put an end to this ongoing terror and tragedy,” Dr. Bennett told an early-morning gathering of indigenous leaders, family members and reporters at a museum in Gatineau, Que. A widely cited 2014 report by the RCMP found that 1,181 indigenous women were killed or went missing across the country between 1980 and 2012.

“Coast to coast to coast,” Dr. Bennett said, “it became painfully clear to many that the high rate of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls could not be ignored.”

But Dawn Lavell-Harvard, the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), said her organization, which was one of the leaders in the call for an inquiry, has concerns about issues that may not be addressed in the directions written for the commissioners.

The first is supports for victims. It appears, Dr. Lavell-Harvard said, they will be offered culturally based counselling only during the time of their testimony and not after they return home to deal with the open wounds.

Second, she said, families have no direct way to get cold cases reopened or new cases started. The commissioners can tell police agencies or attorneys-general they believe further investigation is needed, but cannot order that action be taken.

Third, Dr. Lavell-Harvard said, while the government is offering $16.17-million to help victims’ families obtain information about their cases through the criminal justice system, that support will be provided through provincial and territorial victims’ services offices. “Families are not looking for … counselling services through victims’ services, but justice,” she said.

And fourth, she said, even though Dr. Bennett says the fact that the provinces and territories are signing the terms of reference means provincial services will come under the rubric of the commission, that has not been explicitly spelled out in the terms of reference. “We will rely on the clear message from the minister and her words today, the commitment that the police can and will be investigated,” Dr. Lavell-Harvard said.

The commissioners announced by Dr. Bennett include B.C. Provincial Court Justice Marion Buller; former Native Women’s Association of Canada president Michèle Audette, an Innu who lost her bid to represent the Liberals in a Quebec riding in last fall’s federal election; Qajaq Robinson, a Nunavut-born civil litigation lawyer who speaks Inuktitut; Marilyn Poitras, a Métis law professor at the University of Saskatchewan; and Brian Eyolfson, a First Nations lawyer who served on the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

Justice Buller, who became British Columbia’s first female First Nations judge in 1994, was named the chief commissioner.

Although Ms. Robinson is Nunavut-born and is fluent in Inuktitut, she is not Inuk. Representatives of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, an organization representing Inuit women, expressed disappointment that there is no Inuit member.

The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada’s largest Inuit organization, is not commenting on the matter.

When asked about the decision to appoint Ms. Robinson and not an Inuk, Dr. Bennett said: “We think that the nomination is an excellent one. She is very much supported by Inuit across the country and we think she’ll do a great job.”

Members of victims’ families expressed cautious optimism that the inquiry would provide some answers even if it would not bring back their loved ones.

Laurie Odjick, whose 16-year-old daughter Maisy disappeared nearly eight years ago from their First Nation in western Quebec, said she has been on the fence about the value of the two-year exercise. The announcement has given her some hope, she said, “but I am more about action. I am not sure what’s going to come out of this. … We just have to wait and see.”

The commissioners have been asked to explore the systemic causes of all forms of violence against indigenous women – including the underlying social, economic, cultural, institutional and historical causes– to look at measures that have been effective in reducing that violence, and to make recommendations that would eliminate those causes and commemorate the victims.

They are being given broad leeway to conduct the inquiry in the manner they see fit, and are expected to rely heavily on advisory bodies, the informal testimony of experts and victims families rather than holding court-style hearings in major cities. They will be able to subpoena witnesses and demand documentary evidence.

Denise Maloney Pictou, whose mother, Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, was murdered in South Dakota more than four decades ago, said families have been waiting a long time to see the inquiry begin. “We are all very nervous,” she said. “We’re all hopeful. We have faith.”

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Aug. 03, 2016 9:13AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Aug. 03, 2016 9:44PM EDT