Last Thursday, the federal government released its long-awaited national action plan responding to the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and its 231 Calls for Justice. The report includes short-term priorities, such as public-education campaigns and community-led healing programs, but has been criticized for a lack of details about implementation and associated costs. (An implementation plan is expected later this year.) In its budget, Canada has promised $2.2 billion over five years to address violence against Indigenous women and girls.
Last week, the Native Women’s Association of Canada — which had been working with the federal government on its response to the national inquiry — released its own plan and announced that the organization would be stepping away from the federal response, citing a “toxic and dysfunctional” process. The NWAC plan involves more than 65 steps that relate to culture and language, health and wellness, human security, international action, justice, and public awareness. The actions identified include developing land-based programming, supporting Indigenous-led health initiatives, developing an affordable and culturally appropriate housing model, and creating curriculum materials on MMIWG for primary- and secondary-school students.
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TVO.org speaks with Lynne Groulx, CEO of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, about broken trust, the organization’s priorities, and the prospect of reconciliation.
TVO.org: The Native Women’s Association of Canada was involved with the federal government’s MMIWG national action plan until early last week. Can you tell me about NWAC’s role in the process and why your organization decided to step away from it?
Groulx: We have a historic role working on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls — it goes way back to our project on Sisters in Spirit, and we lobbied for [the national] inquiry to happen. Ten years of lobbying, it finally happened. Then we have a report handed down — the national inquiry report with 231 calls, a declaration of genocide. Then we have a waiting period for the federal government’s action plan. A year went by. After the first anniversary, it was supposed to be handed down, and it didn’t happen. We waited with a lot of anxiety for this year to see when they were going to start this process.
We actually got a call quite late this past year, that the government had formed a certain amount of committees. They formed committees based on First Nations, Métis, Inuit, 2SLGBTQ, the Family and Survivors Circle, a few other committees. But instead of giving us a role, either our own group or committee or a seat on the First Nations, Métis, Inuit committees, they sort of said, no, you’re going to be sitting on this committee, which is the core committee and a data committee, and an urban committee.
We said, well, no, our members are First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. We need to sit on those committees to be able to have the proper input. Then were told we could not. So, right from the beginning of the process, we were excluded from a proper place, to be able to give input that we needed to. That was a problem. But we said, we’ll stick with it a little more. Maybe it’ll be okay. We ended up forming our own advisory committee and still trying our best to participate.
What the major problem was, we were seeing that this report was not going to be a true action plan as was stipulated in the Calls for Justice 1.1: a plan that had concrete action, measurable goals, a budget attached to it, timelines. Then, we said, well, we’re not going to be able to bring this document, this federal pathway, to the community.
We have a responsibility. [The community] said to us, we want to see these 231 calls implemented. And we said, this doesn’t look like this is going to happen in the right way. So we said, we have to step aside. That’s how it happened.
TVO.org: The federal MMIWG National Action Plan was recently unveiled. What are your thoughts about the plan?
Groulx: So, there’s two parts of it, right? There’s one part of it where you have a number of groups that have presented some documents and their perspective on what their plans are going to be. We’re all fine with all of that. All the other groups and the work they’ve done, that’s all great. And the Families Circle as well. We support that, and we respect that. The provinces [too].
But there’s another document called the Federal Pathways. It’s our view that the federal government has the fiduciary duty; they have the main responsibility. It says clearly in the Calls for Justice, it’s their responsibility to have this national action plan and to work in partnership with [Indigenous Peoples] and develop this document. Well, their portion of it is what’s lacking. I mean, it is not an action plan. It does not have the elements that the inquiry said the plan needed to have.
There was a reason the commissioners went as far as to say what the action plan should have in it. There’s a good reason for that. First of all, 231 calls. It’s not that easy to implement. You would really have to be meticulous. That’s a lot of calls to implement.
Second of all, we have lots of history that’s showing us how difficult it has been to implement these kinds of recommendations: Royal Commission [on Aboriginal Peoples] report, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and here you have the national inquiry. How many of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations have been implemented?
So they gave the formula: Be specific. Be tied to your goals. Do it this way. And the department responsible for that, Crown-Indigenous Relations, did not do that. They came up with another broad document. [On Friday] morning, the minister called the document a “living document”; she called it a “green document”; she called it an “aspirational document, a roadmap.” She gave it every other name except for what we needed it to be, which is a concrete action plan.
TVO.org: NWAC released its own action plan, Our Calls, Our Actions, on Tuesday. What was that process like, and why did NWAC decide to develop its own plan?
Groulx: Well, for 47 years, the Native Women’s Association of Canada has been representing our membership, and our membership has grown very, very, very tired of waiting. There’s this huge pressure to have things done that need to get done for the community.
So we said, we have built up maybe enough expertise, enough ability, to go out and find a way to generate enough revenue to actually go and do our own activity, because it’s, like, either we spend more time wasting our time — had we actually done this action plan two years ago and tried to get funding from provinces, private donations, companies, anywhere, we probably would be more advanced, and we would have maybe been able to help our community more.
Hopefully, the federal government will support at least some of our activities, but to date, in the last two years, we have had a very, very limited amount of funding to work on MMIWG activities. Very limited, and only what they wanted us to work on. So we need to move on. We’ve lost confidence that they’re actually going to do the right thing and transfer funds and get it going, because they haven’t in the last two years, when the report was handed down two years ago. Marion Buller said it [last Thursday]: they needed to start doing activities the day after the report was done.
TVO.org: NWAC’s plan includes actions and an associated budget, while the national action plan says the next step will be to produce an “implementation plan,” which will include such details. In what other ways is your plan different, and what do you see it accomplishing that the government’s plan won’t?
Groulx: The government doesn’t have any really concrete actions with measurable deliverables. We don’t even know what actions they’re actually going to take, because they said, ‘We’re committed to’ … ‘We have a priority here’ … ‘We’re putting out 2.2 billion,’ but you don’t know what initiative that is. There’s nothing concrete.
Whereas ours is clear, concrete. It’s an activity. It’s an action, with a verb action in it. [For example] establish a resiliency lodge. There is one already established. The most significant request that has come from our community is for assistance in healing. This lodge that we’re putting together is that healing space that is on the land, that is led by elders, that is culturally appropriate, that has a language incorporated. It has ceremony incorporated. It’s community-driven. It’s Indigenous-women-led.
All the activities that are set out there: there’s a call to justice, or two or three calls to justice, that match up with that particular activity. I think the difference is we’re actually doing it. We’ve started doing our activities. I think that’s a big difference.
TVO.org: While the national plan lacks details on anticipated costs, the federal government has pledged $2.2 billion over five years to respond to the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. What do you make of that announcement?
Groulx: Well, we don’t trust them. I have to be honest with you. We don’t trust them, because, just this week, we have experience after experience after experience of the government making a pledge to do this, making a promise to do that. That’s a lot of broken promises that we have in our history.
We have this issue with this $2.2 billion … where is that 2.2 billion? When you break it down into five years, you break it down to 644 First Nations communities, plus Métis communities, plus Inuit — all of a sudden you might have a problem with your formula.
So I’m not convinced. I’m going to have to see it. They’ve made this commitment. Let’s see if it’s actually true.
And I’m saying that not for myself. I think that you could pretty much talk to any Indigenous woman anywhere in any community. They’ll pretty much telling you the same thing. Like, it’s from colonial times; it’s just one after another. So, you just wonder, then, what is all this? Something is being spoken, and then the result is different from the promises made. Broken treaties, broken contracts, broken accord.
Like Marion Buller said last night on [CBC’s] The National. Do you trust the government? She said no. We are the same. We don’t trust. This time, they’ll have to earn our trust back. They will really have to earn it.
TVO.org: What would it take for the government to earn back that trust?
Groulx: It would take for them to implement this the way that the commissioners said. It would take for the families to have the implementation of their 231 Calls for Justice. For [the government] to actually do what they said they would do. And we don’t see it happening at all, not even an inkling of it. There’s all these words and all these commitments and all this [United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] and everything else, and on the ground, it’s not what’s happening.
That’s what it would take. Keep your word. You said you would have an action plan after one year. We’re two years in, and you only gave us half an action plan. An action plan without action, and with no implementation.
I mean, we feel horrified for the community, to go to them and say, this is what we got from them. This is what we’re getting from the government. That’s a lot of lives that were lost. That’s a lot of missing women. That’s a lot of murdered women, and that’s a lot of violence and, and it’s a lot of pain, and it’s a shame for Canada at the international level, at the national level, at every level, for a country that has such a reputation for human rights in the world.
[This news] was on the top TV station in Mexico. I got a phone call saying, “Hey, what’s going on in Canada?” The Indigenous women over there are wondering what’s going on with our sisters up here. So we need to do better. The government needs to do better, and I think we’re going to hold their feet to the fire this time.
TVO.org: I guess it would be fair to say the relationship between NWAC and the federal government is strained right now. How do you see NWAC moving forward with its own plan?
Groulx: We are going to send [the federal government] a letter. We are going to send them a plan. We are going to request our funding. They owe a reparation. They have a duty; they are the Crown, and they have a fiduciary duty. They have a responsibility. It’s outlined in the national-inquiry report. These are legal imperatives. They’re not suggestions and recommendations. So we’re going to send our report. We’re still going to insist that they fund part of our activities.
We’re not saying, “You don’t have any responsibility anymore.” For all Indigenous women, they still have to do their responsibilities. We will ask them to fund it. If they don’t, we’re not going to wait for that. We’re going to provincial governments, different level of government, our own revenue generation, our own plan, our own community. We’re going to see what we can do without them if they won’t fund us. But we will also put pressure on the international community and the United Nations. I don’t see how they could just deny us our right to have reparation from the harm that’s been done to us.
TVO.org: How much funding do you need in order to implement your plan?
Groulx: It’s around 30 million. I mean, we are the largest organization in the country, and that includes all our provincial and territorial member associations, right — work that we want to do with them as well. So it’s not that much money.
Our model is really prevention and intervention. We don’t just focus on after the fact. The government has had a tendency to put lots of money at the back end: shelters, prisons. What we’re saying in our model is our healing centre is prevention and intervention, two things. Because if you invest at the beginning, then it will also cost the system less money. You need to invest in people and in their healing if there has been that kind of harm.
The system that we have right now, if it was working, we wouldn’t have a problem right now. It’s not working. We have to look at something different. We know what we need and how to heal and how to do it. The government needs to stop trying to manage everything we do. It’s time for us to take over.
TVO.org: Do you have any thoughts or feelings that you want to share about the state of reconciliation in Canada?
Groulx: Yeah. It’s very difficult. I feel we’ve made a little bit of progress in the last few weeks. In a tragic and unfortunate way, with this finding of the remains of the children. That is really bringing, I think, more to Canadians’ consciousness that we have a really colonial past that we maybe try to hide away and didn’t deal with it the right way.
I feel like we’ve made a little bit of progress on that side, on that reconciliation side. But we have a long way to go. I still think that Canada, one of the greatest countries in the world, needs to do better.
I think, for Indigenous people, there is a turning point as well, where we also are going to say, no, we won’t stand for it anymore. You can’t have that kind of gap, like that kind of economic gap, the indicators that we have for health — we can’t have that kind of gap going on. It’s time to deal with it.
I feel like it’s either here or it’s coming, and that’s in part to do with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well. That framework that came out that is sort of forcing people to take a look at what Indigenous peoples’ rights are, and use that as a benchmark to say, well, yes, here’s the framework. Here’s how we should be looking at the future and at reconciliation.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
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