Marilyn Poitras, a Métis and one of five commissioners selected to run the inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, has resigned.
The University of Saskatchewan law professor released a two-page statement in July citing the inquiries “current structure” as a reason for her resignation.
“I’ve heard many of you say that a colonial approach is a deficit-based model of looking at Indigenous women, when they are in need, affected by poverty, racism, and marginalization,” Poitras said in her statement.
“I’m here to say, this is not the whole picture of who we are.”
Poitras added that she believed that part of the solution is to draw on the strengths and resiliency as Indigenous people.
“Because if all we ever talk about is ‘the Indian problem,’ then we’ll only ever be ‘the Indian problem,” she wrote.
Poitras’ resignation comes on the heels of four other staff members who resigned in June. Chantale Courcy, director of operations, Sue Montgomery, director of communications, Tanya Kappo, manager of community relations and Executive Director Michele Moreau tendered their resignations last month.
Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, said that no decision has been made yet about whether or not Poitras will be replaced on the commission.
“There was a distinctions based approach, that was part of the original plan in terms of First Nations, Inuit and Métis,” Bennett said on July 11, “It will be working with the Métis leadership, the Métis community to see how we ensure that distinctions based approach.”
Reaction from community and political leaders has been critical of not only the structure of the inquiry, but also its terms of reference and a concern that the inquiry is just a form of political theatre.
The Native Women’s Association (NWAC) that has lobbied for the inquiry for more than a decade, is calling for a complete restructuring of the commission in light of Poitras resignation.
“This process has lost its focus on those who are impacted by the loss of loved ones and on honouring the lives of Indigenous women,” Francyne Joe, interim president of the NWAC, said. “The departure of a commissioner, immediately following the resignation of the executive director, is a clear indication that there are unresolved structural issues occurring at the highest levels.”
“It’s not a shock,” said Patrika McEvoy, one of three women who make up the Indigenous Mothers group in Prince Rupert and organized a candlelight vigil in February. “The inquiry isn’t really accommodating anyone but the government.”
“I just think it’s another hole for the government to throw money at to say that they’re doing something for the people when they’re really not.”
Mary Hill, another member of the Indigenous Mothers group said a more co-managed grassroots approach must be taken moving forward. One that respects the local protocols, depending on the region and facilitates women serving as hosts of meetings to assist the families who attend.
She also said that the inquiry’s terms of reference should be amended to allow families to ask questions and receive answers from the commission, and that the inquiry should be able to extend the amount of time required to finish its work.
Nathan Cullen, MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, said the news, in combination with the concerns he’s hearing from the families involved in the inquiry, is worrisome.
“I don’t know much about the internal, in terms of why the commissioner resigned or why some key staff have resigned as well, but it is worrisome when you put these things together,” Cullen said. “The experiences of families, the experiences of some pretty important staff and commissioners have been negative.”
Cullen added that the inquiry itself is larger than any one person, but he would like to learn more about what is happening internally.
“The families are owed an explanation,” he said. “They’ve already been through one incredible terrible event and they don’t need to be re-traumatized by an inquiry that isn’t meeting their needs. He added that the public also deserves an explanation due to the amount of time and money being spent.
“We’ve had a mixed experience with this [Liberal] government,” Cullen said, “The words don’t always match the action.”
“Mr. Trudeau shows up at events and speaks in terms that are important but the actions have been less than satisfying.”
Claudia Williams, whose sister Alberta Williams was murdered in 1989, and whose murder remains unsolved, expressed her frustration with the inquiry.
“It’s a very slow process and I find it very unorganized,” Williams said. “I wish they’d get the names straight about the families who have been affected.”
“I think they should revisit the whole purpose,” she said. “I don’t want them to be wasting a whole bunch of money to say ‘we did this, we did that.’”
“The resignation indicates how unorganized the whole thing is.”