Missing and Murdered inquiry hearings in Smithers

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was in Smithers the last week of September as part of its cross-country series of hearings.

Chief commissioner Marion Buller noted some themes in the needs listed by family members who spoke of their lost loved ones at the hearings.

“We also heard great recommendations for safe transportation up here in this part of B.C., for safe housing, and also for transition houses for women and children. We also heard about the need for responsive policing … We also heard recommendations for improved counselling and support services for families who have lost loved ones,” Buller told those gathered for the second day of hearings.

Smithers was the second of nine places so far announced as communities the inquiry is visiting across Canada, and the first since it delayed hearings to change how it prepared families ahead of time. The first was held May 30 to June 1 in Whitehorse. Since then more preparation, including from legal and mental health workers, has been added to visits prior to the hearings.

Start now for the long-term

Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen sat through some of the testimony from family members.

“For me, watching these families get up and talk about such horrible things is incredible. I don’t know where they find the reserve, the strength for that,” said Cullen.

He added the inquiry was an opportunity for those families to be heard, but that there is generations of work to be done.

“That’s not going to be enough,” said Cullen. “It took generations to make this mess, where so many people are vulnerable and exposed to incredible risk: justice, the system of economics, cultural, policing — I mean, this didn’t come from nowhere. It’s all the way back to residential schools and colonialism. So to look for solutions, it makes sense that it’s going to take an equal effort.

“You can’t just simply say ‘there’s a bus that occasionally runs, so that should be it.’ You heard from kids that a better education system, better policing — which I think is improving, better prospects for work, those all come into play. Anyone looking for a quick fix is not understanding the problem.”

Changes in policing have been made for the better, according to the MP, and other changes can start to be made before the inquiry comes out with its final report. A preliminary report is due in November.

“We’re hearing those recommendations consistently… This government needs to work on these things now, not wait for two years from now when the report is finally drafted,” said Cullen

“Kicking things beyond the next election or making it part of the election, that’s where you start to run real risks where nothing will change.”

He listed cell towers all along Highway 16 and improving bus service as examples to start on now. The MP also said while there has also been progress with social services and child welfare agencies, they need to do a better job of understanding the history better to avoid taking children away from parents as much as possible.

But the big factor that Cullen saw as common among most victims was poverty.

“You’ve got communities around here with 80 – 90 per cent unemployment, and it gets into things like forestry policy, export policy; it gets into the way that we manage ourselves and give people opportunity and a sense of hope,” said Cullen.

“I think somebody standing out on the highway is a desperate act…. out there in the middle of February and if say they’re doing this by choice — it’s pretty ignorant. So having more opportunities, especially for young kids coming up, to have a decent life is the ultimate goal for me.

Have we been successful at that? No, not at all. We’ve had an uncaring government at times, big changes in industry — these are all factors but it can come off as excuses if you’re a 16-year-old, 18-year-old kid and you’re three generations in without a job. You just want to go to work.”

An eye on results

Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief Namox (John Ridsdale) told the commissioners directly that he wants to make sure that the recommendations people are giving them are actually followed.

He said everyone needs to hold the inquiry and government accountable for results.

“This can’t be just ‘we’re going to ask you some questions, we’re going to bring you through the hurt and the pain again,’ and then the report sits on a shelf,” said Namox.

“Everybody has actions that can be taken: for safety the way you conduct yourself, or witness things. It was said [Wednesday] that someone had witnessed violence and they were too afraid to call. So don’t be silent, and don’t be idle. Action will get results,” he said.

One action among many

Commissioner Audette placed the responsibility with the federal government that ordered the inquiry. She said “It is for the government to apply [the recommendations]. The commissioners have the mandate to collect the truth, to propose recommendations to make sure it won’t happen again.”

Commissioners said the inquiry will not by itself solve the wide variety of issues that lead to women and girls being murdered or disappearing.

“We also have to remind ourselves and the society … this inquiry is an action among many actions to eradicate violence here in Canada against women and Indigenous women. The national inquiry itself is not THE solution, there are many beautiful initiatives that exist that we also want to hear,” said Audette.

“We’re not lying to families to say, ‘hey, we’ll change your life.’ That would be very disrespectful,” said Audette.

But she also stressed the power of the inquiry.

“We have the power to request documents, to request an institution or a person to come and have that dialogue with us or to answer our questions — the hard questions. And that I’m anxious to do,” said Audette.

Stories from the families

The inquiry heard from 27 families at the public hearings in Smithers, plus 12 more in private.

The stories were of loss and hope, injustice and resilience. They weighed heavy on the heart for anyone who sat through the three days inside the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre. Boxes of tissues with paper bags set out to collect the tears were used throughout the stories of mothers, sisters and daughters lost.

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