Ten years ago, the secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada stood on Parliament Hill alongside Darlene Osborne, whose teenaged aboriginal granddaughter disappeared and was later found dead in Winnipeg's Red River. They were in Ottawa to announce a major report documenting the violence against this country's indigenous women.
On Monday, that same man, Alex Neve, returned to the Hill to mark a decade since the release of the Stolen Sisters report – and this time, there was another teenaged aboriginal girl on his mind: Tina Fontaine, the 15-year-old whose body was found in the Red River last month, sparking renewed calls for an inquiry into Canada's more than 1,181 murdered and missing native women.
"How cruelly ironic," Mr. Neve told The Globe and Mail in an interview Monday. "For those two cases to be the bookends of a decade of work on this issue poignantly tells all of us … that there is still so far to go in understanding why this violence happens at such alarmingly high levels."
The anniversary of the high-profile report comes amid intense pressure on Ottawa to hold a national inquiry – a move the Conservative government has so far rejected. Native leaders and premiers have since turned their attention to a national roundtable, which Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch recently told The Globe she will attend.
It also comes as the federal parties prepare for an election in 2015. Mr. Neve said Amnesty plans to intensify its campaigning on the issue ahead of the vote, including urging candidates to take a position on how to tackle the problem. At Monday's news conference, Mr. Neve and the Native Women's Association of Canada – whose president is planning to run for the Liberals next year – also called on Canadians to help make murdered and missing aboriginal women a priority for politicians.
Mr. Neve said progress has been made since he was in Ottawa with Ms. Osborne 10 years ago: Canadians are increasingly aware that indigenous women are being killed and going missing at disproportionate rates; some police forces have changed their policies to better address the risks native women face; Ottawa provided funding for NWAC's murdered and missing native women database; the RCMP released an unprecedented report detailing the breadth of the problem; and the United Nations added its voice to the chorus calling for a national inquiry.
But much more needs to be done, he said. Provincial and federal action has been "piecemeal," a national inquiry has remained elusive and women like Tina are still going missing and turning up dead. "I feel frustration," he said. "I feel outrage."
Mr. Neve said Tina's death felt like a "very significant moment" in a decade of human-rights work on this issue, in part because of details that emerged last week about the last day Tina was seen alive. Police, paramedics and a child welfare worker all separately had contact with the girl on Aug. 8, while she was listed as a missing person. She was reported missing again Aug. 9 and was found dead eight days later.
"We're now having these revelations that are getting us into the underbelly of the issue – the ways in which the system failed, the ways in which racism, discrimination and sexism may have been playing out, the ways in which social supports for people like Tina are inadequate."
Mr. Neve, who has been secretary-general for nearly 15 years, is looking to the future, hopeful that a national roundtable will bring results and maybe even open the door to a federal inquiry. The past, though, is very much still with him.
"It's impossible to shake the voices, the stories, the faces, the families, the survivors, the front-line activists … who exhibit such resolute strength and determination," he said. "Yet year after year, they still haven't had their very simple demands for justice answered by their country. And I find that very hard to shake."