Forum option offers chance for some action

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Michele Audette, of the Native Women's Association of Canada, speaks during a wrap up news conference after the premiers met in Charlottetown Wednesday with First Nations representatives.

With Ottawa blocking public inquiry proposal, native groups, premiers moving toward Plan B

This past May, the RCMP issued a statistical breakdown of the 1,181 cases of murdered or missing aboriginal women in Canada between 1980 and 2012. There were 1,017 homicide victims and 164 indigenous women and girls are still missing. Approximately one-quarter of those cases — 225 — have never been solved. That last statistic alone should be a compelling argument for a public inquiry, or at the very least, a federal-provincial forum to address this national shame.

Calls for action have reached a fever pitch since the death this month of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old aboriginal whose body was thrown into a Winnipeg river. It dominated the agenda Wednesday during a meeting among aboriginal leaders and the country’s premiers and territorial leaders in Charlottetown.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says cases such as Fontaine’s are best addressed and solved by the police. He says it is important to keep in mind that the girl’s death was a crime and not a “sociological phenomenon.” It was a cold, calculated response to an emotional, heated debate. It’s a sociological fact there are now 1,200 cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women in this country.

The staggering number of unsolved cases repudiates Mr. Harper’s argument that it’s a problem best handled by normal police investigation. History suggests that police are either swamped by the sheer number of cases or are not putting their full resources into solving those cases.

The killing fields of Robert Pickton’s farm in suburban Vancouver, where dozens of prostitutes and drug addicted women were systematically slaughtered over a number of years, do not provide a compelling argument that police are willing or able to take such cases seriously.

The prime minister may dismiss a growing demand for a public inquiry, but the country’s premiers and territorial leaders are not about to let the issue die. They called for a public inquiry a year ago which the federal government rejected, saying it prefers aboriginal justice programs and a national DNA missing person’s index. And just how do those two factors solve gruesome murders or bring some sort of comfort and closure to grieving families?

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, whose province suffers a high proportion of those tragic aboriginal women’s cases, says any inquiry needs to look at the causes — from the justice system, to societal issues and responsibility among First Nations communities.

Mr. Harper believes the cases are not the fault or problem of his government, but that blame would likely come his way during any inquiry. It seems that politics dictates an inquiry is out of the question with an election just over a year away.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair promised Wednesday that an NDP government would establish a full public inquiry within 100 days of taking office but the premiers are moving now toward a Plan B — a federal-provincial forum. It’s a compromise option first offered by native groups who argue that the worst thing is to stay idle on this issue.

To their credit, our premiers are not going to let that happen. Native leaders say the idea of a roundtable would require the participation of the federal government and if Prime Minister Harper rejects this proposal, then court action is likely to force Ottawa to live up to its aboriginal responsibilities. The key, of course, is action and not just more study. The problem must be solved.

P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz, who is chairing the meeting, says an inquiry is the right idea but he is also interested in the roundtable idea to keep the dialogue going while Premier Wall says the provinces remain united with aboriginal leaders. At least some levels of government take their social responsibilities seriously.

Organizations: RCMP, First Nations, NDP

Geographic location: Ottawa, Canada, Winnipeg river Charlottetown Vancouver Saskatchewan

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