THUNDER BAY – Overcome with emotion, Michèle Audette struggled to keep her composure while voicing frustration with shortcomings in the mandate and process of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.
One of the four commissioners tasked with leading the review established by the federal government, Audette fought through tears on Tuesday after hearing from the family of Sarah Skunk, who was 43 at the time she was last seen in Thunder Bay in 1995.
“I wish we were able when they gave us that mandate a year-and-a-half ago to be able to reopen all cases. All cases. My niece, my auntie who got killed. Your auntie. All cases across Canada,” Audette said during the second day of public community hearings in Thunder Bay.
“Why are we still kept in the dark? We don’t have that mandate so we’re pushing, pushing and pushing for what leaders asked way before us, that we an reopen those cases with this national task force.”
There are more than 1,200 documented cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada between 1980 and 2012.
Inquiry officials said they had heard from 594 families and survivors during seven hearings held prior to their arrival in Northwestern Ontario this week. The three days in Thunder Bay, which includes both public and private sessions, were expected to receive input from another 50 families and survivors.
But Audette, who noted the inquiry's previous stop in northern Quebec gave those people an opportunity to speak up for the first time in years, sometimes decades, said more is needed to reach those not living in the cities where the inquiry has stopped.
Chief commissioner Marion Buller has already said commissioners will ask the federal government for an extension to the two-year inquiry.
Audette said her "heart is suffering" that timing and resource challenges prevented the inquiry from going north.
Everything went fast, she said.
"We need to take the time to do it right because we're never going to have another inquiry like this,” Audette said.
Audette acknowledged the possibility she could be replaced as a commissioner if there is an extension but was not deterred.
“I agree we can do more and we have to do more. We have to do more for our children and our grandchildren but also for your sister, for your auntie, and we will fight because we’re already fighting. We’re already fighting,” Audette said.
“We’ve been receiving that anger since the moment it was announced, legitimate anger, because the system failed and it’s still failing today. Am I going to lose my job because I say that – maybe. But I’ll sleep well because I have to say it. I’ve said it before and I will continue.”
Former Mishkeegogamang First Nation chief Connie Gray-McKay said her community has lost 300 people since 1981. Both Skunk and Viola Panacheese, whose family testified earlier in the morning, were from Mishkeegogamang before being last seen in Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout respectively.
There is a limited ability to take action at the local level, Gray-McKay said.
“We have to quit looking at intervention and start looking at prevention,” Gray-McKay said.
“These programs come into our communities and they become the boss. It shouldn’t be like that. We have to equip our leaders. In that role, I know what it’s like to be the punching bag from both sides. Your people are mad at you because they have displaced anger. You’re doing the best you can to support your people but you’re not given the resources. You’re set up for failure. The government knows that.”
Audette said she was “triggered” by those comments.
“We fall and I’m falling (Tuesday). I’m not ashamed of that because we represent an institution, a national public inquiry, that is supposed and I believe to be one of a kind tools to say to Canada, ‘something is wrong and don’t pretend it’s just happening in Attawapiskat or in Kenora or downtown east side Vancouver,” Audette said.
“It’s happening across Canada, not only in 1800-something but also in 2017.