Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks with reporters following a meeting with AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde at the Assembly of First Nations annual general meeting in Regina, Thursday. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

First Nations chiefs divided on national public inquiry: Bellegarde

OTTAWA — First Nations leaders are divided on what to do about the troubled inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde says.

Some want a reset of the commission while others want resignations from the four commissioners, Bellegarde said Thursday in an interview with The Canadian Press prior to a vote on resolutions at a Regina meeting of chiefs.

Bellegarde is steering a middle course, saying the commission needs to focus all of its energy on ensuring the stories of families are front and centre, adding it is critical for the commission to improve communications going forward.

“Our chiefs are divided,” he said. “Some want a total reset, some want to start fresh and then there are others that are saying ‘You know, we should be empowering those commissioners, we should be supporting those commissioners, we should be praying for those commissioners because they have a tough job, they’re dealing with hurt and pain’.”

The inquiry has spent weeks fending off criticism from some families who have loudly expressed concern about the process and the recent resignations of senior staffers and a commissioner, Marilyn Poitras.

Two of the remaining commissioners — Michele Audette and Brian Eyolfson — addressed some of those concerns directly Wednesday night at the AFN annual meeting in Regina.

There are also family members encouraging the commissioners, Audette said Wednesday.

“There’s a silent group … that are saying ‘stay, don’t give up’,” she told reporters. “We hear that too.”

Another theme that has emerged at the meeting is concern about police failing to conduct adequate investigations into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada, Bellegarde said Thursday, adding policing must be a priority during the course of the commission’s work.

“The families wanted to make sure, the chiefs wanted to make sure that the terms of reference for the missing and murdered indigenous women inquiry (are) broad enough and expansive enough to review … police services that impact our people on daily basis,” he said.

“As national chief, I would encourage the commissioners to use their powers and push the envelope … to ensure that all police services are reviewed, that they questioned, and hopefully some recommendations brought forward to fix what obviously is not working.”

The national inquiry can and will consider the conduct of policing services and policies across Canada in 14 federal, provincial and territorial jurisdictions, commission spokesperson Bernee Bolton said in a statement.

Depending on the province, there are differences in the powers of the national inquiry to consider police conduct, she added, noting there is a forensic team currently reviewing police files.

“In B.C., the commissioners cannot make findings of misconduct,” she said. “In other jurisdictions such as Ontario, the commissioners can make findings of misconduct. In all jurisdictions the national inquiry can refer information on specific cases back to authorities for reinvestigation.”

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