A debate over the need for a federal inquiry was front and centre at Alberta's first national gathering focusing on Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women, with some victims' families saying they resent what they describe as the politicization of the tragedies.
Aboriginal groups, law enforcement, family members and political leaders are meeting in Edmonton this week for the Spirit of Our Sisters conference, which on Monday featured a public meeting of The Globe and Mail's national advisory board on missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Attendees engaged with the board – which was created by the newspaper earlier this year as it investigates the disproportionate rate of violence against indigenous women – in sometimes emotional and heated exchanges on issues such as a national inquiry and mistrust of police.
Clive Weighill, an advisory board member and president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said he sees the deaths and disappearances as part of a "big systemic issue" perpetuated, in part, by social ills such as poverty and racism.
"I know the Prime Minister always tries to push it off and say, 'It's a crime,'" said Chief Weighill, who is also head of the Saskatoon Police Service, alluding to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's assertion that the tragedies are not part of a "sociological phenomenon" but rather crimes best handled by police. "I think we need a leadership in our country that says, 'I've got a vision: We're going to have to work on these social-justice issues that are facing the aboriginal population.'"
The conference, sponsored in part by The Globe, comes just a few months after the RCMP said a serial killer may have been responsible for the deaths of several women in the Edmonton area, and days after an aboriginal woman's body was found on the shores of an Alberta waterway.
With the federal election approaching, some attendees voiced their support for a national inquiry into Canada's more than 1,181 missing and murdered indigenous women. But others questioned the need for further study, and said they feel some leaders may be using the hot-button issue to advance themselves politically. The Conservatives have dismissed the need for a probe, while the NDP and the Liberals have promised to launch an inquiry if elected.
"It has been studied lots," said Kathy King, whose daughter's 1997 death remains unsolved. "So I get really confused: Why do people want more task forces when we need more services?"
Advisory board member and former B.C. attorney-general Wally Oppal cautioned an inquiry could cost upward of $100-million and will "put off action for probably another four or five years."
The gathering continues Tuesday with speakers such as Rinelle Harper, the indigenous teen who narrowly survived a vicious attack in Winnipeg last year.