VANCOUVER – The national missing and murdered indigenous women’s inquiry has failed to adequately reach out to loved ones and survivors, says a coalition of advocacy groups and families less than two months before hearings are set to begin.
The Coalition on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in British Columbia is calling on the commission and federal, provincial and territorial governments to do a better job of communicating with distraught families.
“This is the last chance that family members who want to be heard will be heard,” said Michele Pineault, the mother of Stephanie Lane, whose DNA was found on serial killer Robert Pickton’s farm. “This inquiry is very, very important to a lot of people.”
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Coalition member Fay Blaney said at a news conference Monday that the group was concerned about media reports that said the inquiry had only located about 100 family members or survivors as of two weeks ago.
An RCMP report in 2014 said police had identified nearly 1,200 missing or murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada.
Blaney said she understood the federal government had not shared with commissioners the names of those who came forward during pre-inquiry consultations due to privacy obligations.
She said the commission should immediately request that all levels of government and indigenous organizations reach out to family members and survivors to ensure they know how to register to be a witness.
The coalition is also concerned that federal, provincial and territorial governments appear not to be assisting the inquiry, Blaney added.
Chief commissioner Marion Buller said in a statement that the commission has now identified 195 family members and survivors.
Buller said it has been reaching out to families and communities through its website, social media, podcasts, newsletters, regular teleconferences with national indigenous organizations and advisory meetings.
The inquiry is holding a series of regional meetings across the country to receive input from survivors and families before the first public hearing on May 29 in Whitehorse.
The commission has said families and survivors who would like to share their stories do not need to apply for standing and should instead send an email or call a toll-free number. It has asked national indigenous organizations to share the contact information, said Buller.
But Lorelei Williams, whose aunt went missing decades ago and whose cousin’s DNA was found on Pickton’s farm, said the commission should be proactively reaching out.
“I’m feeling so frustrated and very upset about what is going on with this inquiry so far,” she said. “Families are freaking out right now.”
Williams questioned why pre-inquiry consultations were held at all, if not to collect names of family members for the inquiry.
“What did they do that for?” she asked. “I’m going to assume that those families put their names forward for a reason. … They want to be a part of this.”
Shawn Jackson, a spokesman for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, said it transferred to the national inquiry in November a database of information collected during the pre-inquiry process including meeting recordings and correspondence.
However, Jackson said many people participated in the consultations anonymously and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada is prevented by privacy rules from providing the lists of participants.
The coalition is also urging the inquiry to make efforts to include “families of the heart,” or friends. Evelyn Youngchief’s friend Georgina Papin was killed by Pickton and she said many friends of the missing and murdered would like to speak.
“We’ve been waiting for a very long time,” she said. “Changes need to be made on how aboriginal women are looked at. Stop killing us.”
Pineault said it has been difficult to tell her story over and over again for the past 20 years.
“It’s at a point now where I just want to say, ‘I want a life of normalcy. I just want to stay home and not have anything to do with this.’ But I have to do it to the bitter end.”