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 resigned last week, saying the inquiry is structured so that too much is driven by the commissioners rather than Indigenous communities themselves.
“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,” said Poitras in a two-page 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 of 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 after four other staff members resigned in June, including Chantale Courcy, director of operations; Sue Montgomery, director of communications; Tanya Kappo, manager of community relations; and Michele Moreau, the executive director.
Carolyn Bennett, the minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, said no decision has been made yet about whether Poitras will be replaced.
Some community and political leaders have been critical of not only inquiry structure, but also its terms of reference, with some concerned it is just a form of political theatre.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada, which 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,” said Francyne Joe, interim president of the NWAC.
“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,” Patrika McEvoy said, 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.”
Nathan Cullen, MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, said the news is worrisome, as are the concerns he’s hearing from the families involved.
“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 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 incredibly terrible event and they don’t need to be re-traumatized by an inquiry that isn’t meeting their needs.”
The public also deserves an explanation due to the amount of time and money being spent, he added.
“We’ve had a mixed experience with this government,” Cullen said, referring to the governing Liberals. “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.”