As the Northwest Territories develops its own action plan in response to the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), the new minister responsible for the Status of Women says she wants to work with women and frontline workers who have been actively involved in the issue.
Caroline Wawzonek took over the role as part of a cabinet shuffle on July 23, when it was also announced she would be overseeing the action plan.
“I think [this] is an opportunity for us to be ground-up and for us …. to have a purpose that’s respectful and engaging with individuals at the frontlines,” she told Cabin Radio.
“That, to me, is one of the most important things in how we get started.”
Wawzonek brings her experience as legal counsel to the Native Women’s Association of the NWT during the national inquiry. She said that gave her a “real emotional connection to the work” and a “front row seat” to the inquiry’s expert and knowledge keepers hearings.
“Having seen and experienced the breadth and the depth of just how much and how wide we need to really focus our efforts, I think that’s actually, it’s really helpful, because now I’m in a position to advocate for a whole-of-government and a whole-of-Northwest Territories response,” she said.
There is no hard deadline for when the territory’s action plan will be completed. But Wawzonek said she hopes to have a roadmap, or a “plan for the plan,” to present to MLAs during the upcoming fall sitting of the Legislative Assembly.
“I certainly do feel some pressure,” she said. “I want to see this on paper. I want to see it moving forward, so we can start to implement it.”
In the territorial government’s initial response to the national inquiry’s final report in August 2019, it hadn’t committed to all of the relevant Calls to Justice. Instead, it outlined 18 themes from the report and detailed what the government was already doing in those areas.
Wawzonek said she has reviewed that document and while it gives a good sense of where the territory currently stands, she wants to look at what still needs to be done. She said she couldn’t yet commit to which of the Calls to Justice the territorial action plan will focus on.
As Minister of Justice, Wawzonek did say, however, the territory is already actively looking into missing person’s legislation that could improve police access to information to help locate missing people. That’s a Call to Justice that some provinces like Ontario and British Columbia have already enacted.
NT not considering Gladue reports
Wawzonek also said the territory won’t be developing Gladue reports – a special type of pre-sentencing report for Indigenous offenders – any time soon.
Gladue reports get their name from a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision in 1999, which said judges must take into account the unique life circumstances of Indigenous offenders during sentencing and consider alternatives to incarceration. It aims to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canada’s criminal justice system, but advocates have said enough still isn’t being done for Indigenous offenders – particularly in the North.
The Northwest Territories does not currently use Gladue reports but includes Gladue factors – like family history of substance abuse, and impacts from residential school and the 60s Scoop – in regular pre-sentencing reports prepared by a probation officer. Gladue reports, by contrast, are prepared by Gladue caseworkers, and experts say they’re distinct from pre-sentencing reports.
Caroline Wawzonek at the NWT’s legislature in October 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
“At the moment, that’s not being considered, which isn’t to say that there’s not going to be some opportunities, hopefully in the near future, for communities to have greater involvement in terms of the information that gets presented and delivered in a courtroom setting,” Wawzonek said.
The national inquiry has called for federal, provincial, and territorial governments to consider Gladue reports as a right, to resource them appropriately, and to create national standards for these reports.
Other jurisdictions in Canada have developed systems for producing the reports. The Yukon launched a pilot project in 2018, funding and formalizing the process in the territory for the first time. Ontario has separate Gladue courts that incorporate Indigenous cultural practices and understandings of justice.
NT changes direction in committing to action plan
Until recently, the Northwest Territories hadn’t committed to developing it’s own MMIWG action plan.
While the national inquiry did not specifically recommend for territories and provinces to develop their own action plans, it did issue a number of Calls to Justice aimed directly at this level of government.
In June, Diane Thom, then-minister responsible for the Status of Women, told the Legislative Assembly the NWT government felt that a national action plan would be adequate. Ottawa has delayed the release of that plan, however, which it had promised would be ready by the one-year-anniversary of the national report, citing the Covid-19 pandemic.
NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane told Cabin Radio her government has been focused on responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. When they had a “chance to create a tiny breath of fresh air,” she said they reviewed their priorities and decided they would take action on the MMIWG file on a territorial level.
“We have an opportunity in this government to make it a focus and I am committed and my government is committed to making this a focus,” she said.
‘We’ve got to start taking some real serious steps’
Lesa Semmler, MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, had called on the territory to create its own action plan in June.
She recently told Cabin Radio she’s happy that Wawzonek is overseeing work on that plan. She’s waiting to see what it will include and if the government will allocate funding for it.
“We need to make sure that we’re starting to put things in place and we’re starting to protect our women and girls in the territory and really put our money where our mouth is so that we can do this,” she said.
Lesa Semmler, the MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, at the NWT legislature in October 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Wawzonek said the territory will look at whether it has funding to develop the plan and effectively implement it. She said that may mean partnering with the federal and Indigenous governments.
Semmler was one of the first to testify at inquiry hearings in Yellowknife in 2018. She spoke about her mother, Joy Semmler, who was murdered when she was eight years old.
“I’m doing this not just for me but so that way people don’t have to go through what I have gone through,” she told Cabin Radio. “There’s so many others that have gone through so many different scenarios.”
Semmler said she would also like to see the territory do more to address the Calls to Action in the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). That document, she said was “like the father” to the MMIWG inquiry.
“It’s [been] five years, but what can we actually sit down and check off a box that we’re doing as a territorial government for the TRC?” she questioned.
“I know that we are putting things in place slowly but we need to have more of a plan.”
Semmler noted addressing these issues is especially important as the Northwest Territories has some of the highest rates of violence and suicide in Canada as a result of legacies of trauma.
“These are important to Indigenous people and we make up 50 per cent of the population,” she said.
“We’ve got to start taking some real serious steps to move these along.”