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National inquiry headed to Yk in fall

Lesa Semmler is helping advise the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. She lost her mother to violence at a young age. 0903mmwB.jpg Stewart Burnett/NNSL photo

An NWT woman who is part of a family advisory council to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls says the group must ensure it includes all NWT cultures when meeting families in Yellowknife this fall.

“We have Inuit, we have the Metis, we have the Dene,” said Lesa Semmler, an Inuvik resident whose mother was murdered more than three decades ago.

As the sole NWT representative on the family advisory council, Semmler helps inform the inquiry about the North’s differences compared to Indigenous cultures in the south.

“When we come together in Yellowknife, you’re going to need to respect all three (groups)… we can’t leave one out,” she said.

Last Thursday, Chief Commissioner Marion Buller announced the inquiry will hold hearings in a number of communities across Canada this fall, starting in Thunder Bay, Ont. on Sept. 10 and ending in Rankin Inlet on Dec. 4.

A hearing is scheduled in Yellowknife for the week of Nov. 13.

Over the summer, the inquiry is scheduled to make preliminary visits to the scheduled communities, including a stop in Yellowknife during the week of Aug. 28.

“It’s to prepare the families and survivors and to prepare with the community how the hearing will be,” said Qajaq Robinson, commissioner with the inquiry. “We have an interdisciplinary team of our staff – the health team, legal counsel, community relations and logistics – who will come.”

According to Robinson, staff will help identify what support families and survivors need – whether it’s spiritual, health or elder support – and will work with local organizations to prepare for the hearings.

Commissioners will not attend the preliminary visits.

“We really want to respect and include the cultures and the language and the traditional ways and the spiritual ways of the nations within Yellowknife and the other communities that we go to,” she said.

So far, the inquiry has faced criticism after public hearings were postponed this summer and a number of staff resigned, including the inquiry’s executive director and commissioner Marilyn Poitras.

Families and advocates have also expressed concern that there has been a lack of communication around the inquiry’s process. But Robinson said there are close to 60 staff who remain committed, adding turnover is natural in any organization.

“This is incredibly difficult work. It’s onerous as well,” she said, adding most resignations have been for personal reasons.

She stressed it is important families register to take part in the inquiry – something Semmler added could be the most challenging part of the job.

“The thing is they don’t have a list of families. It’s up to the families (to get involved),” said Semmler. “I think that’s the biggest concern.”

According to information provided by the inquiry, families can register to share their story in person, by phone, fax, e-mail, or by sending a letter to the inquiry.

A staff member is then expected to contact participants to help them through the process.

Participants can share their stories in different ways, including at a community hearing, a private hearing with a commissioner, through artistic expression or privately before a statement gatherer, according to the inquiry.

But Semmler said NWT residents would benefit from having a territorial point of contact they can reach out to with questions as well as people who will reach out to communities to provide information about the inquiry.

“We all don’t live in Yellowknife and we all know how expensive it is to get there,” she said. “I’m glad that they’re coming, that they’re going to be here. I just hope that people are able to reach out to those families.”

The Native Women’s Association of the NWT declined to comment on whether they are working with the inquiry.

The inquiry is expected to announce another schedule of community visits for the winter and spring of 2018.