Public inquiries are government-appointed commissions that look into matters of public interest.
Their job is to find facts, summarize findings and make recommendations to government in a final report. It is up to government to implement the recommendations when the inquiry is complete.
Previous public inquiries have investigated matters such as RCMP misconduct, the status of Indigenous Peoples and corruption in the bidding for public contracts. The Charbonneau Commission and the Federal Gomery Inquiry are often highlighted as successful models for public inquiries. The last major public inquiry in BC was the "Braidwood Inquiry into the Use of Conducted Energy Weapons in BC" (tasers).
Public inquiries are broadly divided into two investigative subjects: public policy or looking at wrongdoing. Sometimes, they do both.
Depending on how an inquiry is structured, it can involve interviews and oral testimony, and commissioners can have the power to subpoena witnesses. A public inquiry is necessarily very broad in nature.
They are not courts. And if they focus on finding fault and blame they run the risk of being little more than poor imitations of our civil or criminal justice systems. However, public Inquiries can exist side-by-side with criminal investigations. For example, the Charbonneau Commission worked alongside law enforcement. Thirty-seven arrests were eventually made, but the commission focused on the origins of the problem and reforming public policy to avoid similar problems in the future.