Survivors, families pained by MMIW executive director’s departure

OTTAWA — Maggy Gisle fought for two decades for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, but she says the current commission isn’t giving her much to cling to.

Gisle, an abuse victim, former addict and sex worker who spent 16 years on the Downtown East Side, said Friday she was shocked to find out through the media that the inquiry had lost a second executive director, adding its communication ”really sucks.”

She said she’s been volunteering her time to try to connect Indigenous women who remain on the streets with the commission so their voices are not forgotten.

But she said the inquiry “keeps dropping the ball.”

“It doesn’t give me faith in the process,” Gisle said in an interview, trying to hold back tears.

“What I’ve fought for since I was on the streets, since 1998, is that we be heard … They need to hear the history and the past but they also need to hear the present. They need to hear of the people who are still … at the Downtown East Side.”

The federally funded inquiry confirmed late Thursday its executive director, Debbie Reid, left her job, but declined to comment further on a personnel matter.

Director of operations Calvin Wong will step in as interim executive director effectively immediately, the commission added.

“We thank Debbie for her contributions,” it said in a statement. “We are ensuring that the national inquiry’s work is not disrupted during this time of transition.”

For her part, Crown-Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett is not convinced.

“I am concerned about the amount of turnover at the commission and that it will distract from the work at hand,” Bennett said in a statement.

“They have a very important job to do and that is to get answers for families.”

She won’t step in, however.

“While we share families’ concerns about the difficulties we have seen — the independence of the commission is crucial and we aren’t going to interfere in internal matters,” Bennett said.

Opposition parties say it’s time for the federal government to ensure the commission is on the right track, especially as the inquiry looks to make a formal application for more money and time.

The Liberal government earmarked $53.8 million and two years for the inquiry’s work.

“Before any decision is made around an extension, I think they need to be listening to the advice they’ve been getting from hundreds of families, advocates, victims, groups like the AFN (Assembly of First Nations), groups like the Native Women’s Association,” said Conservative Indigenous affairs critic Cathy McLeod. “They can’t continue to have all these red flags.”

NDP status of women critic Sheila Malcolmson also wants Ottawa to do more.

“The independence of the inquiry is not paramount,” she said. “The families are paramount … if they really want the inquiry to be independent, they should get the Privy Council’s colonial approach to the inquiry removed.”

In November, the commission released a progress report detailing how government red tape delayed everything from setting up proper phones and Internet access to obtaining the basic materials staff members needed to simply do their jobs.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada, which has given the inquiry failing grades for its work so far, said Friday it was ”shocked” and “outraged” to learn of Reid’s departure, adding families are enduring “very upsetting news” from the commission.

Gisle agreed the process has been really painful so far.

“I am holding on to so much,” she said. “I have so much information for the inquiry.”

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