OTTAWA -- Dozens of family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are calling for "a hard reset" of the national inquiry meant to probe decades of abuse, including the resignation of its commissioners.

In an open letter released Tuesday, more than 140 family members representing more than 30 families are asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to not only ask the current inquiry commissioners to resign, but to address their concerns about the process too.

"Prime Minister Trudeau, we are asking you today to give us back our inquiry," the families wrote in the letter.

"We have met with [Indigenous Affairs] Minister [Carolyn] Bennett and she has refused to listen clearly to what families are saying. Instead, she has been relying on minor tweaks and small changes to a deeply flawed process."

Waneek Horn-Miller stepped away from her role as director of community relations on Tuesday. However, a spokesperson for the former the Olympian said the departure was due solely to family reasons.

The commission’s executive director, Michele Moreau, also resigned in July. The inquiry cited personal reasons.

The families say they feel left out and even harmed "by the Inquiry's misguided processes."

It's necessary to find new commissioners, they say, "to create the needed space to rebuild an Inquiry that is Indigenous-led and community driven."

"Far too many families have had to endure more anguish and have continually had their expressed concerns dismissed," they wrote in the letter to Trudeau, which was also sent to Bennett, as well as Marion Buller, the chief commissioner of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, and each premier.

"We are asking you to live by your words to use an Indigenous-led, rights-based approach that honours our rights to security, to equal voice, to participate in matters that affect our lives, and to guarantee against all forms of violence and discrimination."

Families should be 'at the centre' of inquiry

Awo Taan Healing Lodge executive director Josie Nepinak is one of the letter’s signatories. She said the commissioners have been “quite dismissive” of the shared concerns brought forward by the friends and loved ones of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“There is a lot of trust that has been lost,” she told CTV News Channel. “What we are seeing at this moment is a very colonial construct that is very ‘legal.’ Those are some of the systems that . . . dismiss Indigenous women’s lives and perpetuate colonial violence against Indigenous women.”

A spokesman for Bennett said the federal government remains "committed to ending this ongoing national tragedy."

"The terms of reference are clear – families should, and must, be at the centre of the commission's work," James Fitz-Morris wrote in an email to CTV News.

"The minister met with the commissioners and discussed these issues directly with them. The commissioners have a plan and are dedicated to finding solutions to address families' concerns – this includes a constant process of learning and adapting as the inquiry progresses."

The families say they are concerned:

  • There's no mechanism for both birth and "chosen families" to be heard
  • The commission waited 10-months before appointing community liaison officers and hired them without consulting the families on their job descriptions and hiring
  • The inquiry "built its processes from a top-down colonial model that perpetuates institutionalized racism and erases the knowledges of many people living and working to build the systemic changes needed to ensure we see no more [missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, trans and two-spirit people]."
  • The health team, meant to support families through trauma, "have been directed by a Western, clinical model of trauma-informed approaches, rather than Indigenous and decolonial frameworks of trauma and violence informed processes"
  • There's no separate process for sex workers and members of the queer community, or women in the corrections system.

“You cannot do this without the families of missing and murdered loved ones, and you cannot do this without our Aboriginal lenses in terms of our languages, and our diverse cultural needs across the country,” Nepinak said.

The families are also concerned they don't have enough information about how standing was granted for people who will be heard by the inquiry, including experts, and who was denied standing.

No response from inquiry

The inquiry did not respond to CTV's requests for comment. Bellegarde was travelling Tuesday and unavailable for interviews. Nepinak said she not aware of any response from the federal government.

AFN chiefs passed a resolution at the end of July calling for changes to the inquiry process and to its mandate, though they voted to reject a call by Grand Chief Arlen Dumas, of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, for Trudeau to replace the commissioners.

Tuesday's letter isn't the first this group of family members has written. They had also sent one to Buller in mid-May, but said no one from the inquiry got in touch with them. They got in touch directly and a coalition of family members met with the commissioners on July 11, followed by a meeting with Bennett afterward.

The inquiry has also gotten at least one letter of support recently. The co-chairs for the Yukon Advisory Council on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls wrote to Buller in July to say they felt the commission adjusted its processes after hearing concerns from the community "in order to be respectful of the Yukon’s context and preferences."

"To be sure, we feel very strongly that if a restart or reset occurs with the national inquiry, it would dishonour the Yukon families who were brave enough to come forward and be the first people to speak to this important work in Canada," wrote Jeanie Dendys, minister responsible for the women's directorate, Chief Doris Bill of Kwanlin Dün First Nation, and Krista Reid of the Whitehorse Aboriginal Women’s Circle.

With files from The Canadian Press