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As the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women becomes harder to ignore in the face of mounting evidence and terrifying statistics, communities, families and activists have repeatedly called on the government to lead a national inquiry.
Chief Isadore Day is the Regional Chief of Ontario, and is a spokesperson for the campaign. Roshini Nair spoke with him by phone. This interview has been edited and condensed.
What are you hoping to achieve with the Who is She? campaign?
Who is She? is a campaign organized by the Chiefs of Ontario to fundraise and raise awareness for an Ontario First Nations-led inquiry process into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. We want to raise the public conscience about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
Is this just an Ontario-based campaign or are you involving people from around Canada?
Ontario is going to do what we could do as a region within the Assembly of First Nations to raise the level of awareness, to establish a national dialogue. From that perspective, we are taking the initiative as a region, but we are certainly extending our request to all other regions, and the country to become engaged in this issue.
And the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and other regions have been supportive?
They are supportive of it. Other regions are supportive. Simply, we weren't waiting for anybody, even the AFN. We just felt like it was time, and we did it. Our staff was ready, I worked closely with them, and we just did what we needed to do.
And I'd like to state for the record that Ontario First Nations are wanting to utilize the Who is She? campaign to invoke a national dialogue on this very critical issue because it's not just a First Nations issue, it's a Canadian issue.
There's a sense of urgency. What are you looking for specifically in terms of funding?
We know that, we need at least $500,000 to begin the inquiry process. That's a basic assumption, knowing that we're going to have to hire lawyers, we're going to have to have facilitators, and we're going to have to have an information management system. There are a number of prerequisite issues we're going to need to establish in the inquiry process.
And there will be costs associated with to ensuring that the families can become engaged. That there's going to need to be possibly some professional counseling that's going to be involved along the way, maybe some legal fees for folks that may come forward through the inquiry process that may say, hey listen, I've got more information about a case.
Without the statutory power and framework of a government-led inquiry, what does the process look like for an Indigenous-led inquiry?
An inquiry that's coming from this perspective that doesn't have the current statutory trigger for a national call for an inquiry means we definitely need to ensure that there's safeguards in place such as confidentiality agreements. We're going to have to do this thing right, so we will hire consultants that will help us navigate through the, some of the formal judicial elements of an inquiry and again, that takes money, that takes a little bit of time.
We're actually taking responsibility for laying that process out. We would be working with those that we know in the legal community, we've got First Nation judges on the bench that will be able to provide us information.
This is going to be different because we are going to own the process, we are going to design the process, we are going to be able to walk our people through that process in a way that it's us doing it.
Going forward there will probably be a much greater willingness on the part of our people to say "yes, you know what, I trust this process because it's us doing it." There's a real "on the ground" sense that we're taking control, and we're also taking responsibility for the pain and anguish that's been created as a result of this issue and that's something I believe our citizens are going to feel quite comfortable with.
It's really important that we recognize opportunity during a federal election campaign. There will be a lot of Canadians paying attention to the issues that are important to various sectors in Canadian society.
A lot of people are wondering what's happening with First Nations issues in this country and they will be looking at how federal parties respond to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. As we start to elevate and increase more awareness, it will certainly be an option for Canadians to say "how is this party responding to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and family violence?" and they'll say "well this one doesn't really care too much" and "this one does" so that's who I'm going to vote for.
And then after the election -- what if the next government is willing to mount an inquiry? What would happen to your inquiry?
There certainly will be a governance structure that ensures that there's a decision-making process in place to allow us to make that change based on what the families want, what the communities want. We definitely are not going to replace a national inquiry. That's not what this is about. We're going to do what we can to prepare for an Ontario First Nations-led inquiry process and if we can dovetail some of our efforts, you know establish a much better way to engage, then certainly I think that's something that a formal inquiry will probably invite.
And we'll have them put ourselves in a much better position a lot sooner, because we didn't wait for the federal government.
How is the campaign going so far?
Well, we are getting money coming in. It happened right away. People were saying it's about time, and there seems to have been a flood of enthusiasm and people congratulating us for this step forward. They were saying, more than anything, it's time to get this work done.
And what's next?
We're getting ready for other meetings with the premiers and territories and meeting with the federal government post 2015 federal election. I also want to recognize and commend the superb leadership and courage of Premier Kathleen Wynne who standing shoulder-to-shoulder on this issue on a number of different levels. They're just waiting to find out exactly what it is that we want from Ontario. The fact that they're standing beside us is symbolically a huge issue.
We want Canadians to make this known to the federal government that we really need to call an inquiry process. It's a national issue, and we definitely want to take this opportunity to advocate on behalf of our families and above all, we want to prevent this thing from happening in the future.
Roshini Nair is a multimedia journalist based in Vancouver. Follow her on twitter @roshini_c_nair.