Wilson-Raybould must move quickly to reverse what’s becoming a public embarrassment for the government

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But she also needs to tread carefully because once launched, any public inquiry is an independent body designed to be master of its own affairs.

First published on Monday, May 29, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—Father knows best.

In 2017, that statement may be an anachronism, but Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould received some sage parental advice last week.

Hereditary chief Bill Wilson was blunt, calling for the resignation of the head of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Characterizing the glacial pace of the inquiry as “disgusting” and a “bloody farce,” he added in a blunt CBC television interview: “It’s almost as if they have scraped scabs off open wounds and then have done nothing to heal them.”

Wilson-Raybould will be under tremendous pressure to ignore her father’s advice but if she does so, she will pay a huge political price.

Only a few days earlier, commission chief Marion Buller defended the apparent disorganization and lack of communication by claiming she was taking a victim-centred approach to the inquiry process.

Public complaints keep piling up. Basic organizational tools to carry out simple tasks like manning hotline phones and enlisting witnesses do not seem to be in place more than five months after the inquiry launch.

And given that the promise of an open, transparent forum was one of the key Liberal election centrepieces, it is imperative to get the inquiry right.

One of the challenges the minister faces is that once a commission of inquiry is called, it becomes master of its own destiny.
Even though the composition and membership was government-designed and approved, a commission is free to establish its own pace and work plan.

The irony of that reality is that any failure is visited squarely on the shoulders of government.

A lot is riding on a successful conclusion to a process that appears discredited before public meetings even commence.

A huge reboot needs to happen now.
While the commission chief has amassed an impressive list of credentials during her time as British Columbia’s first indigenous woman on the bench, it is one thing to write courtroom judgments.

It is quite another thing to manage a $50-million national organization with travel and communication requirements involving remote communities across Canada.

Wilson-Raybould must move quickly to reverse what is becoming a public embarrassment for the government.

But she also needs to tread carefully because once launched, any public inquiry is an independent body designed to be master of its own affairs.

That is the main reason why most governments are loathe to launch public inquiries in the first place.

The Gomery Commission is one recent example of a well-publicized public inquiry that cost millions but was eventually discredited by a Federal Court judge, who bluntly accused Judge John Gomery of judicial bias.

In the early years of the Jean Chrétien Liberal government, the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada was established. The cost of the inquiry took four years and ballooned to $14-million.

When cabinet recommended a fixed report date and budget, we were informed that we had no choice but to simply foot the bill. Privy Council officials said that to do anything else, would be an interference in the independence of the judicial process.

Wilson-Raybould may have to ignore that advice. Otherwise, what was a centrepiece of a new government may prove to be an embarrassment.

Last week during a much-publicized interview, the inquiry head appeared to lack basic communications skills. The operation is already suffering the loss of multiple communication directors.

With a high level of staff dissatisfaction and turnover, it is little wonder that there is no coherent message.

What is also inexplicable is the lack of basic infrastructure in place to support the potential witnesses. Having telephone operators to handle the onslaught of expected hotline calls is a question of simple organizational management.

The inquiry needs to re-establish its organizational credentials quickly, by securing the removal of the chair.

The last thing the inquiry needs is to victimize women who have already been victims, simply because no one is even in place to follow up on basic telephone messages.

Wilson-Raybould is a talented, dynamic member of the Liberal cabinet. She comes with great credentials in the aboriginal and justice communities, and she cannot afford to wear this failure. But wear it she will unless she acts on her father’s blunt, public message.

It must be tough for any elected official to witness their parent on national television dishing out some pretty tough advice.

But unless his advice is heeded, Wilson-Raybould will personally bear the blame for a failure over which she now has little control.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.