Just when it thought it was going to be able to make some headway, the Native Women’s Association of Canada has found itself without the means to participate in the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry in British Columbia – and they are not alone.
According to Executive Director Claudette Dumont-Smith, NWAC was delighted to have been granted “full standing” at the BC inquiry along with 13 other groups, most of which are Aboriginal.
“The inquiry into what happened in the Lower East Side of Vancouver that was going to look at police response, how many women have gone missing/ been murdered and where there were gaps,” explained Dumont-Smith.
And, having accumulated so much data on not only missing and murdered Aboriginal women but the specific circumstances and issues that perpetuate the situation through its Sisters in Spirit Initiative (SIS) over a five-year period, NWAC was an ideal participant.
However, while NWAC’s knowledge, expertise and data could have enriched the findings of the inquiry, the association found itself unable to provide this input as it was announced that none of the groups given standing would be offered any assistance in their legal fees.
According to Dumont-Smith, being granted “full standing” means that a group can participate in every aspect of the inquiry and all of its sessions. As an inquiry of this nature is executed however in a formal court setting, each group with standing requires legal representation to pose any questions to the police and other groups presenting and also to ensure that the group they are representing is kept in the loop of all of the legalese.
But, without legal representation or the funding to acquire this legal representation, participation is absolutely impossible.
“First off it is very costly to hire legal council as well as assistance for them as there are mounds of documents that have to be read and researched. There was just no way that we could hire one or two legal representatives to attend these meetings as we don’t know how long they are going to be and how much work it would be for them. The bottom line was that it was very expensive and we don’t have the money,” said Dumont-Smith.
Dumont-Smith added that usually, when commissions of this nature are called in Canada, full standing means that legal representation is covered by the province or the Crown.
NWAC was not the only group that has had to pull out; a large portion of those 13, including the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, have also had to pull out for the same reasons.
As a result, Dumont-Smith said the outcome of the commission is likely to be very one-sided.
“It seems as though they want to predict the outcome of this commission when that is really not the role of a commission. They are writing this before the work has even been done,” she said.
With this in mind, NWAC has just announced that it is calling on the federal government for a national commission or inquiry into the 580 cases of missing/murdered Aboriginal women that it has documented.
In that the call for the new inquiry was made just this past July 28, the federal government has yet to respond to the demand made by NWAC but Dumont-Smith said she was hopeful, particularly in light of the government ending the SIS research.
While the SIS initiative researched cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women from 2005-2010, the funding for that initiative not only ended in March 2010 but the association has also found itself gagged as it has been stipulated in its federal funding that NWAC cannot use funding for lobbying or research.
While the Feds promised that they would earmark $10 million to address the missing and murdered Aboriginal women issue, much of that has gone to the RCMP for a new data base that would ignore all of the Aboriginal specific circumstances and research SIS did.
Instead of looking back in anger, Dumont-Smith said the association is going to be looking at obtaining new federal partners to bring this endeavour forward and fight for a national inquiry to examine exactly went wrong in the cases of these 580 women and how the system failed them.
In the meantime NWAC has continued to work with police forces and any other group that has been willing to benefit from its expertise.
“We will do everything that we can to change this and so we are willing to work collaboration with others. But, at the same time, we feel that we would need to be equal partners in any effort that is being put in place to address this issue.
“We have to be at the forefront of this movement as we have a vested interest in this issue,” said Dumont-Smith.