ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – The chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls says she hasn’t seen much progress from the federal government since the inquiry’s critical interim report was published last year.
“It’s the action that counts, not the thought. The action so far is not speaking too loudly,” chief commissioner Marion Buller said Thursday.
The final witnesses testified in St. John’s, N.L., on Thursday, with calls for authorities to include sexual exploitation survivors in policing and protection of the victims of human trafficking.
The inquiry had requested a two-year extension earlier this year, but the federal government allotted just six months.
Buller said Thursday the short extension is not enough time to satisfactorily complete the job.
Extra time would have allowed for more in-depth investigation into the child welfare system, and for visits to institutions, penitentiaries and prisons to speak with incarcerated Indigenous women, she said.
“Do we have enough time? No. But we’ll make do,” said Buller.
“I know families and survivors all across Canada are relying on us to do our very best and then some.”
She said the government probably considered what was recommended in the first report, but she hasn’t seen “any specific action” since then.
Buller praised the strength and honesty of families and survivors who testified during the lengthy hearing process.
Parties with standing will give their final submissions at public events in Calgary and Ottawa later this year, before commissioners write their final report.
The report and its recommendations are set to be submitted to the federal government next April.
The inquiry got off to a rough start in 2016 and was disrupted by a number of resignations and terminations, as well as calls to re-start the process altogether and for Buller to resign.
Families and witnesses grew frustrated in early 2017 without a clear timeline as to when they could testify.
Last November’s interim report blamed the federal government for the initial delays, saying bureaucratic red tape hampered inquiry staff from doing their jobs efficiently.
A rapidly dwindling timeline aside, Buller pointed to “individual success stories” that have come out of the process, saying she’s heard from people who have been motivated to go back to school, report abusers and get their children back from care.
The week’s expert hearings were to focus on sexual exploitation, sexual abuse and human trafficking.
In St. John’s on Thursday, the inquiry heard from Rachel Willan, a violence and trafficking survivor, Diane Redsky, a Manitoba community outreach leader, and Chief Danny Smyth and Staff-Sgt. Darryl Ramkissoon of Winnipeg police.
They looked at linkages between the child welfare system, sexual exploitation and the justice system that many trafficking victims find themselves caught in.
Redsky, who has worked with sexual exploitation and trafficking victims for more than two decades, said 13-year-old girls are the most common targets. She said the Internet is only making the exploitation more insidious.
“It is a growing problem that is almost out of control,” Redsky said.
She emphasized the need for survivors’ voices to be included in collaborative efforts to combat the targeting and exploitation of young Indigenous girls.
Redsky recommended authorities make use of existing laws against human trafficking, and recommended that victims of sexual exploitation have their criminal records expunged.
Chief Smyth also spoke to the effectiveness of outreach and collaboration with grassroots community organizations like the Bear Clan and Redsky’s Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre.
He said the police force has seen better results since establishing starting a victim-centred approach to law enforcement, and engaged with community groups that connect with victims in a personal way.
“I offer my apologies for past conduct and policies that contributed to harming Indigenous women and girls,” Smyth said.
He recommended better funding for community organizers, so they can focus on supporting vulnerable people.
Willan, who now works with sexual exploitation survivors herself, shared her personal story of being trafficked.
She said she was raised in 53 placements as a child and spent decades of her life being trafficked, assaulted and abused. She spent significant time incarcerated and built up a criminal record on charges from instances when she fought back against perpetrators.
Willan echoed the recommendations of Smyth and Redsky, sharing the importance of relationships with other survivors for her own healing.
“It was women holding the door shut that protected me and my other survivor sisters that said ‘You’re not going to hurt her,'” said Willan.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what it takes to surround a woman with love and have her exit on her own.”