The first three days of hearings in the missing and murdered inquiry in Winnipeg began with families feeling left out and confused, but ended Thursday with a grandmother-led sharing circle.
The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls wrapped up its first round of national expert hearings at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights Thursday after hearing from six experts on Indigenous law and decolonization. It was part of the inquiry’s truth gathering process leading up to community hearings this fall.
“We came here to Winnipeg to open a space where we could learn more about some Indigenous laws, because there’s so many that we have yet to learn about,” said chief commissioner Marion Buller.
But the inquiry has struggled to connect with the families of the missing and murdered, who said this week’s hearings showed a lack of interest in engaging and involving them.
Families unclear why experts heard first
“At the beginning, I was confused myself, I didn’t know what the expert hearings [were]. I was upset,” said Sue Caribou.
Caribou is a member of the National Families Advisory Circle. According to the inquiry’s website, NFAC is a group of MMIWG families that provide support and guidance to the inquiry commissioners.
“We were ready to walk out. A lot of families did walk out and didn’t come back,” she said. Caribou said she also considered stepping down from her role on the advisory circle, stating that families should have been more involved in the planning of these hearings.
“There should have been more families included in this expert hearing, to have a better understanding of what this expert hearing was all about. And what Indigenous law is.”
She wishes more families would have been in attendance but she is “grateful” to have had a chance to hear from the experts.
“I have a lot in my family that were murdered. I still have family that is missing,” said Caribou, who attended all three days of the hearings.
“It’s important for me to be that voice for my family. All my family, because they don’t have a voice.”
Controversial location and lack of involvement
Some families chose not to attend the hearings because it was held at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, said Kevin Hart, the Manitoba Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations. Hart said the Museum omitted the term “genocide” when referring to the treatment of Indigenous Peoples by the Canadian government.
“With the history of the [CMHR] there was a clear divide in our community when it comes to the museum and the location of this hearing being here,” said Hart.
As one of the organizations that has official standing with the inquiry, the AFN was invited to attend this week’s hearings.
“When we were here on Tuesday, there was a lot of confusion obviously with the families … it didn’t look like there was any participation or involvement of the families that were affected by this,” said Hart.
‘Trying our best’
An inquiry official acknowledged those concerns, but said families weren’t the focus of these hearings. Instead, these hearings were focused on Indigenous law and experts in that field, said Tiar Wilson, a communications advisor.
She explained that there are three types of hearings at the inquiry: community hearings, institutional hearings and national expert hearings.
Families are front and centre in the community hearings, but the intention of the national expert hearings, Wilson said, is to educate the Canadian public on subjects like Indigenous law and decolonization.
Wilson said there has been some problems with family engagement, but insisted that inquiry officials are trying to incorporate everybody.
“I know that there’s some controversy, some of the families have mixed emotions. But we’re trying our best, we’re doing things in a good way,” said Wilson, adding that they’re trying to adapt based on feedback from families.
Event schedule changed at families’ request
On the third and final day of the expert hearings, the inquiry changed the scheduled events in response to families’ requests to include a sharing circle lead by grandmothers, giving families a chance to have their voices heard.
Family members were invited to share recommendations on how to move forward with the next steps of the inquiry.
Suggestions ranged from better engagement with families, providing lunches and transportation, to not having any future hearings take place at the controversial human rights museum.
The next national expert hearing is scheduled for Oct. 2 in Montreal, focused on international law and human rights.
Winnipeg’s community hearing will be held the week of Oct. 16.