One issue that came to light after families of missing and murdered indigenous women came to Yellowknife last month to tell their stories is the great frustration that comes from the lack of emergency services in smaller communities.

Jayda Andre, the sole-surviving sibling among two sisters and one brother in Fort McPherson, told the visiting national inquiry her sister Joni lay bleeding for more than an hour before police arrived and they had trouble with the phones while calling for help. The phones were only sporadically working that day, according to Jayda’s testimony.

Joni Andre was beaten and stabbed to death by her husband Stanley Itsi in 2004. She was 22 years old. Her two-year-old son was in the home when she was killed.

Some of the factors in the case bear similarity to what occurred 10 years later in the beating death of Charlotte Lafferty in Fort Good Hope. A witness at an elder’s home desperately tried to alert police but struggled to get a non-Dene speaking dispatcher in Yellowknife to comprehend what was going on.

The police response time was also criticized, made worse by a police spokesperson’s ham-handed attempt at explaining how officers at small detachments need time to wash their face and eat some breakfast before rushing to an emergency.

The bottom line is the territory in particular is failing women and girls when it comes to protecting them from violence.

Domestic violence rates in the NWT are among the highest in Canada. A 2014 Statistics Canada report on family violence states, “Similar to the overall crime rate, the territories had the highest rates of police-reported family violence.”

The rate was 1,897.1 cases per 100,000 people in the NWT, behind only Nunavut at 2,491 cases per 100,000 people.

More than 40 families from across the territory shared their stories of loss due to violence at the inquiry in Yellowknife, Jan. 22-25 and there are hundreds more who didn’t or couldn’t share their stories. The inquiry is important – it personalizes a very large public issue. But that isn’t the only good to come out of these tragic stories.

These shared experiences are bringing to light exactly where the system is failing, whether it be a lack of social workers, mental health care supports or the ability to respond to emergencies in small communities.

After years of brushing it off as impossible, the GNWT took an important step last year in committing to having 9-1-1 available in all official languages of the territory, in every community, by summer 2019.

This ought to greatly improve the communication problem while lowering frustrations among Indigenous speakers seeking help in smaller communities. To this we add the need for more social work and mental health supports in smaller communities. It’s not enough to have nurses and police officers there. There needs to be social and wellness workers as well. Too bad the social work program at Aurora College is on the chopping block.

The RCMP, meanwhile, need to ensure there are auxiliary officers in every community composed of residents from those communities. These officers not only build up trust but can assist police and emergency workers in identifying people and locations they are trying to attend.

Too much time has passed already. Let’s not wait for another inquiry to come before making these services a reality.

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