OTTAWA — The national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women is fighting in court for access to two RCMP files the national police force is refusing to hand over.
The inquiry is set to issue its long-awaited report in June, but says it wants the contested Mountie files to complete its work on one of the saddest chapters in Canada’s recent history.
Little is publicly known about the two disputed files other than their titles: “Missing Person: Missing Indigenous Woman” and “Homicide: Murdered Indigenous Woman.”
Both sides have agreed to an expedited process and hope to have hearing dates on the dispute before mid-May in the Federal Court of Canada, said Catherine Kloczkowski, a spokeswoman for the inquiry.
Federal lawyers acting on behalf of the RCMP have yet to make submissions to the court.
In an April 8 notice of application outlining its case, the inquiry seeks a court order disclosing the two files to commission lawyers.
As part of its mandate, the inquiry established a forensic document-review team to confidentially review police and institutional files, seeking to identify systemic barriers or other weaknesses related to the protection of Indigenous women and girls. The ultimate aim was to make recommendations about the underlying causes of disappearances, deaths and acts of violence.
The inquiry issued two subpoenas last September directing the RCMP to disclose various files, according to the notice of application. In December, the police force produced written rationales claiming public-interest privilege over 59 files because the cases were still under investigation.
Federal lawyers and inquiry counsel then agreed to a procedure, in keeping with the common law, to test the RCMP’s claims of privilege on 12 files most keenly sought by the forensic document-review team.
An RCMP investigator with knowledge of each file was interviewed by an inquiry lawyer in front of one of the inquiry’s four commissioners. After the interviews, lawyers for each side made submissions. The sitting commissioner then ruled on whether public interest privilege had been established.
The interviews took place Jan. 10 before commissioner Brian Eyolfson and the next day in front of chief commissioner Marion Buller.
During the interviews, the inquiry abandoned its challenge on one file when it became apparent the matter was still actively under police investigation. In addition, the government dropped its claim of privilege over another file, leaving the fates of 10 files to be decided.
Eyolfson ordered one of these files to be turned over to the inquiry while finding another to be validly withheld.
Buller ordered the Mounties to produce the remaining eight files to inquiry counsel, finding no public-interest privilege. She later amended the order — with the consent of both parties — for six of the eight files to be handed over no later than March 28.
That left the two contested files now at the centre of the court battle.
Federal lawyers objected to their disclosure by filing certificates with the Federal Court under the Canada Evidence Act, which allows for a hearing to decide whether secrecy will prevail.
The court must weigh the public interest in disclosing the two files to the inquiry against any public interest in keeping them under wraps.
In its notice, the inquiry says the contested files “are no longer under active investigation” and should be given to the forensic document team.
Kloczkowski said that upon receiving the files the inquiry, under its terms of reference, could use them to make recommendations or refer the contents to authorities for further action.
The terms allow the commissioners to pass along information to appropriate agencies if it could be used in the investigation or prosecution of Criminal Code offences, or if it points to misconduct. The commissioners have already identified a “number of cases” that appear to warrant alerting authorities, Kloczkowski said.
Although the inquiry can’t disclose details of those cases, the number of referred cases will be made public at the end its mandate, she added.
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Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press