VANCOUVER – It wasn’t until Canada’s first aboriginal justice minister took the stage to outline a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women that the tears began to stream down Lorelei Williams’ face and she let herself believe that this time things might be different.
Williams, whose aunt disappeared nearly four decades ago and whose cousin’s DNA was discovered on the farm of serial killer Robert Pickton, said Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s involvement makes a world of difference.
“I have issues trusting the government. When (Indigenous Affairs) Minister Carolyn Bennett was speaking, and Minister (of Status of Women) Patty Hajdu, I was having trouble believing them,” Williams said on Wednesday, hours after the inquiry’s terms of reference were announced.
“But when Minister Wilson-Raybould came up, then I was like, ‘OK, there’s actually hope here. One of our women is up there and I really, truly believe she is going to do something.”’
Williams’ and Wilson-Raybould’s home province of British Columbia has been especially hard hit by disappearances and murders of indigenous women, from Pickton’s notorious killing spree to the Highway of Tears, where women have vanished.
Provincially focused inquiries have been conducted and recommendations made, but the lack of follow-through has left many profoundly skeptical about the prospect of real change.
In the aftermath of the Pickton’s conviction, former attorney general Wally Oppal was tasked with conducting an inquiry into missing and murdered women in the province.
The report, entitled “The Forsaken,” was criticized for failing to allow families to play a bigger role in the process.
Williams said that, while optimistic, she’s concerned the newly announced inquiry will focus on systemic issues without fixing them, and urged the government to develop a plan to implement the findings, along with more than 700 recommendations already generated from other reports.
A coalition of British Columbia families and support groups said there’s no room for mistakes this time around.
Mary Teegee, with Carrier Sekani Family Services, said the federal government’s decision to call the inquiry finally acknowledges there is a problem.
“(The fact) that nothing has been done for all these years, that is a mark of racism – that people could overlook thousands of missing and murdered Indian women and it wasn’t a national crisis until just recently,” she told a news conference Wednesday in Vancouver.
“This is not an indigenous problem. It’s not a women’s problem. It’s a Canadian problem that we need to work together to deal with,” she added, describing the inquiry as a good first step.
Teegee expressed optimism about what she called a “spirit of reconciliation” conveyed by the federal Liberal government, but added that inquiries are worthless without the resources to ensure recommendations can be followed up on.
“We know that many reports sit on a shelf gathering dust. We want to make sure this doesn’t happen,” she said. “It’s too important to get it wrong.”
Keira Smith-Tague of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter said her organization is concerned about the absence of any explicit reference to how policing will be reviewed.
“Saying the police are involved or co-operative is not enough and this is not the time to be vague,” Smith-Tague said.
“We need … a process to hold police accountable for their failures to protect indigenous women and girls from male violence.”
It would be a joke and an insult to refer women with concerns over how missing-person reports were handled back to the same police forces that failed them in the beginning, she added.
The inquiry is scheduled to begin on Sept. 1 and operate at arms length from government. It’s expected to last at least two years and cost at least $53.8 million, nearly $14 million more than originally envisioned.