The president of the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council is lamenting the resignation of Marilyn Poitras, one of five commissioners of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered
Indigenous Women and Girls, but hopes the loss will encourage those in charge to overhaul their approach.
“She was just so approachable and I think families were quite comfortable having her around,” Doris Anderson said of Poitras in an interview Tuesday.
“With commissioner Marilyn Poitras resigning, maybe that will push them to try to improve the process.”
Poitras is the first commissioner to quit and Indigenous advocates across Canada are sounding the alarm. Many are calling for a total reset of the inquiry for which they lobbied so hard.
The high-profile resignation spurred the Ontario Native Women’s Association on Tuesday to withdraw its support for the inquiry. In an open letter to the commissioners, President Dawn Harvard wrote: “We no longer have faith that this Inquiry will meet its mandate and work responsibly with families and communities.”
Others, such as Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, and former NWAC president Bev Jacobs, have called for Chief Commissioner Marion Buller to step down.
But it’s Anderson who experienced the first, and so far only, public hearings, which took place in Whitehorse last month. She said some of the most glaring problems could be solved with greater involvement of grassroots organizations.
“(The commissioners) should be talking to us ... rather than outside organizations who really don’t have the information that we have, or the contact with the families,” she said.
“It is the grassroots organizations that families contact first. We built that relationship and it’s quite comfortable for them, and for us, and I think that’s something they bypassed.”
Anderson said the commissioners should connect with local organizations prior to, and following, each set of hearings.
That wasn’t how it worked in Whitehorse, she said.
“We walked in blindfolded just like the families did, and that shouldn’t happen,” said Anderson.
There was a lack of information about the hearings’ structure and agenda, and not everyone who wanted to participate was given the chance, said Anderson.
She added that in testimony, some families wanted to share things other than what they were asked about.
Buller promised the inquiry would return to the Yukon if need be, and Anderson is choosing to believe the chief commissioner will keep her word.
Poitras, a law professor at the University of Saskatchewan with Métis roots, is the latest in a series of high-ranking officials to resign from the inquiry.
Executive Director Michèle Moreau announced her departure for “personal reasons” on June 30, and two successive communications directors and a lawyer left the inquiry before her.
“It’s chaos,” said Atlin-based lawyer Joan Jack, who gave testimony with her family at the June hearings.
“The landslide of resignations of key people tells me there’s something wrong at the top.”
During the inquiry in Whitehorse, Jack had concerns about the swearing-in process, which she viewed as out of step with Aboriginal law. The commissioners ultimately let her family share
without swearing in.
“They did adjust to our wishes but I had to push,” said Jack.
“If I wasn’t a lawyer and an activist and outspoken and articulate, what would have happened? Nothing. If I hadn’t taken to twitter and Facebook, what would have happened? Nothing.”
Jack spoke briefly with Poitras at the hearings. She said the former commissioner was receptive and had an understanding of traditional perspectives.
Jeanie Dendys, the minister responsible for the women’s directorate, reaffirmed her support for the inquiry in an emailed statement Tuesday, and thanked Poitras for her service in
“We respect and admire the courage shown by all families that came forward to participate in the Inquiry,” said Dendys.
“We are also grateful to Marilyn Poitras for her contribution to this nationally and for the compassion she showed our families while she was in Whitehorse. We continue to support the process and believe that a national inquiry is very important.”
In a letter sent to Prime Minster Justin Trudeau and released to media, Poitras said she is “unable to perform my duties as a Commissioner with the process designed in its current structure.”
She goes on to say that “this opportunity to engage community on the place and treatment of Indigenous women is extremely important and necessary. It is time for Canada to face this
relationship and repair it.”
Anderson said there is no need to wait for the end of the inquiry to act on the advice of families.
The commissioners heard in Whitehorse recommendations for re-igniting traditions, for on-the-land healing camps, and for the creation of a monument similar to the one by Shipyards Park
commemorating killed and injured workers.
“It doesn’t have to be huge,” said Anderson, “but some place where the families recognize it as their own, that they can go and grieve or share with other families.”
Despite tumult inside the inquiry, Anderson remains hopeful.
“It’s been a long time coming,” she said.
“I just need it to work for the families.”