Policing under scrutiny at inquiry into missing, murdered indigenous women

OTTAWA — Police are getting ready for a grilling at the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, even if they are not explicitly mentioned in its mandate.

“I really want to assure the indigenous population that the police will co-operate fully with all facets of the inquiry,” Saskatoon police Chief Clive Weighill, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said Tuesday.

“And if a particular event requires review, or clarification, we will assist the commissioners and the family involved.”

The Liberal government faced criticism from advocates and families of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls last month when a draft version of the terms of reference, which was leaked to several media outlets, did not explicitly state the need to examine the role of police or their conduct.

The draft instead referred more broadly to underlying causes of violence against indigenous women and girls — including institutional ones — that Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has said would involve policing.

A government source said Tuesday the inquiry would explore a potential mechanism for reviewing investigations of missing and murdered indigenous women that families feel were not handled properly the first time around, such as deaths determined to be accidents that they believe were actually homicides.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada has called for exactly that, asking that it be independent and overseen by the inquiry.

The source did not share any more details, but noted the terms of reference allow the commissioners to be able to pass along to the “appropriate authorities” any information regarding misconduct, or that may be useful to a criminal investigation or prosecution.

Weighill said it is important for the inquiry to establish some way to review individual cases — both to conduct further investigations, if the original ones are found to be lacking, and to eliminate suspicion in cases found to have been handled well.

He did not want to speculate on the design of any review mechanism, but did call for a uniform process nationwide.

“We don’t want the commissioners sending out to one police agency to investigate something in their particular way and to another agency (where) they’ll investigate it in their way,” Weighill said.

Ontario Provincial Police spokesman Sgt. Peter Leon said they are also ready to participate.

“The OPP will do whatever is asked of the OPP as an investigation,” said Leon, adding this would include revisiting cases should new information come to light.

The RCMP has also offered its full participation and support.

The commission falls under the part of the federal Inquiries Act governing public inquiries, which means it will have the power to summon witnesses and compel evidence and testimony, just like a civil court.

The provinces and territories have all agreed to sign on to these terms of reference, which include giving commissions jurisdiction over areas such as municipal and provincial policing.

Beverley Jacobs, a lawyer and advocate for families, said she likes that the terms of reference are broad.

“I have to have full trust in the commissioners and the knowledge that they have to put some teeth into the terms of reference,” said Jacobs.

Shelagh Day of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action said she is concerned it leaves too much up to interpretation.

“One of the things we know is that governments establish inquiries for very good reasons and then when it comes to the close examination of a policy or practice or requests for information or a file that seems sensitive, governments can balk,” said Day.

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