OTTAWA – Policing will require close examination during the inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said Thursday after questions were raised about a draft copy of the terms of reference.
The “uneven application of justice” — including everything from the quality of police searches to investigations themselves — will require review because outcomes seem to be affected if victims are indigenous women, Bennett told The Canadian Press.
This is precisely why the federal government needs to get provinces and territories, currently reviewing the terms, on side with the inquiry’s mandate because policing and other issues cross jurisdictional boundaries, she said.
“This was the difference between a federal inquiry and a national public inquiry and none of that has changed,” Bennett said.
The minister’s remarks come a day after draft terms of reference for the inquiry were circulated online. They did not explicitly state the need to examine the role of police or their conduct.
Issues with officer behaviour and investigations were raised by families of murdered and missing indigenous women during the government’s pre-inquiry consultation period.
If the inquiry’s commissioners are going to have the capacity to examine police conduct, that should be built into the terms of reference, advocates said Thursday.
“It doesn’t have to be explicit,” said Christa Big Canoe, the legal advocacy director at Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto.
“It just has to be that police investigations are on the table.”
It is one thing for the government to say it will be included but it is another thing to do it, she added.
NDP Status of Women Critic Sheila Malcolmson also believes the draft terms of reference fall short.
“It is critical that consultations with indigenous families and communities affected be central to drafting the terms of reference,” she said in a statement.
The federal government plans to discuss the mandate of the inquiry with the families before it is made public, Bennett said.
“They know that a representative group of them will be invited to come to Ottawa on the day prior to the launch where they will walk through the final terms of reference and the commissioners,” she said.
An announcement is expected soon but a date has not been publicized.
Child welfare will also be a key theme, Bennett said, noting the government has repeatedly heard about the “devastating” impact on children who are apprehended and what often happens to their mothers.
“There’s no question that stories around the child welfare system from Tina Fontaine to so many of the other cases … we know the commission will have to deal with this and the differences in all of the jurisdictions,” she said.
“The federal government, even though we are a funder of the child welfare system, we also have to be accountable for the results and children are being apprehended such that there’s more kids in care than at the height of residential schools.”
The federal government is currently engaged in a lengthy back and forth with The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal over its commitment to fund child welfare services on reserve.
In January, the tribunal ruled the federal government discriminated against First Nations children in its funding of child welfare services.
Bennett has repeatedly said the government is committed to overhauling the system.
Cindy Blackstock, a social worker who spent nine years on the case that resulted in the tribunal’s ruling, believes the government is still racially discriminating against aboriginal children in its delivery of services on reserves.
A key issue is $71 million the government earmarked in this year’s budget for child welfare — a figure far from sufficient, Blackstock says, pegging the actual need at around $200 million.