Carolyn Bennett, centre, speaking in Yellowknife.
Northern families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls advised federal minister Carolyn Bennett of their “unique situation” as she visited Yellowknife on Friday.
Bennett, the minister for Northern and Indigenous Affairs, is overseeing the establishment of a national inquiry on the issue.
Yellowknife marked one of her first regional stops as she seeks to consult with the families of victims about how an inquiry should be run.
“One of the first things we heard is there needs to be an Indigenous perspective throughout the leadership, staffing and processes of the inquiry,” Bennett told reporters following Friday’s meeting.
“They’re eager to remind us that this is not a pan-Indigenous approach: there are differences and unique situations even here, where we are dealing with the Dene as well as the Metis and Inuit.
“What we’ve heard so far is they think it’s very important that the commission understands regional differences. I was intrigued that some people felt the recommendations and calls to action may also be regional.”
Bennett said she also heard calls for more treatment and support for those struggling with addictions and mental health issues.
The Liberal government hopes to have its national inquiry up and running by this summer.
“I think at the launch of the inquiry we will feel that we have been successful if families feel they have been listened to – if they can feel their fingerprints on the blueprint,” said Bennett, who predicted an inquiry with a novel look and feel.
“We have not heard, from anywhere, that it needs to be a sterile courtroom with people in the witness box. No-one thinks that’s going to work,” she added.
“I cannot imagine this work could be done sitting in one place, in Ottawa. No. We will make sure that they have the budget to move and to listen to people where they are.”
Answering a question on how the inquiry would examine the role of police, Bennett said that had been an issue “from the very first time I sat down with families, a decade ago”.
She continued: “This morning we heard, as we often do, [discussion regarding] whether investigations were thorough enough, whether the victims were viewed to be inevitable that they were found missing or murdered, the feelings of the families that things happen differently if the victim is non-Indigenous.
“But we also have heard this morning, and in other stories, of specific situations where the police officers are indeed the perpetrators.
“That is a concern and, as I’ve said before, I think First Nations, Inuit and Métis were grateful of [RCMP Commissioner] Bob Paulson’s admission [regarding racism toward Indigenous peoples]. But a ‘few bad apples’ approach is not going to be sufficient, from what I’m hearing from families. We’re hearing that people want policing dealt with in a much broader, systemic way.”
The venue for Friday’s meeting in Yellowknife was changed to accommodate the large number of people wishing to attend.
Bennett subsequently travelled to Norman Wells on Saturday to discuss ways of improving the Nutrition North program with residents.
Pre-inquiry meetings continue in Whitehorse, Vancouver and Prince George this week.