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Sharon Acoose - an Indigenous woman who spent time as a sex worker and in jail - says the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women must work on hearing the voices of those behind bars to explore root causes of violence against Aboriginal women and girls. Acoose is shown in this Nov. 15, 2016, file photo at her office at the First Nations University of Canada in Saskatoon.

Liam Richards/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A former sex worker who spent time in jail is urging the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to interview other Aboriginal women who are languishing behind bars to hear their insights.

Sharon Acoose was a victim of childhood abuse — and she believes the majority of Indigenous women who end up in provincial jails or federal prisons have also endured emotional, physical and sexual violence, and can offer a perspective vital to the work of the inquiry.

"They need to hear the stories," Acoose said in an interview. "They need to hear the heartbreak."

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Acoose suffered her own heartbreak as a victim of childhood molestation: beginning at age 3, she was abused by three now-dead uncles — an experience she said set in motion the circumstances that led to her involvement in sex work, drugs, alcohol and crime.

Many Indigenous women who are at risk share similar pain, she said.

"Of course they've been abused. They don't just end up on the street for nothing."

About 91 per cent of Indigenous women in penitentiaries are abuse victims — a "staggering" percentage, said Sen. Kim Pate, the former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

Many of the issues that lead to a life on the streets or behind bars are the same as those that lead to missing or murdered women, Pate added.

"Because of the histories of abuse and poverty, their experiences of marginalization, many of them have also been medicated — if not medicated by the medical professional, they may have started to medicate themselves," she said.

"All of those put them at increased risk of being further victimized ... they're also likely to face further criminalization."

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As of March 2015, the Office of the Correctional Investigator reported Aboriginal inmates represented 24 per cent of the federal custody population.

During a Senate committee hearing last month, Marion Buller, the inquiry's chief commissioner, was asked by Pate how the inquiry could reach out to marginalized Indigenous women, including those involved in sex work or in prison.

A statement-taker could meet with the women in safe locations to collect their testimony, Buller suggested.

"The most marginalized Indigenous women and girls in Canada are of great concern to us," Buller said. "We've heard already from people who are in the sex trade; people who are in prisons who have written to us."

The inquiry has yet to respond to further requests for comment on how the commission is reaching out to penitentiaries — something Pate said she's anxious to hear about.

"My sense is there is certainly a willingness to proceed that way," she said. "It may be, much like the overall plan, it is not clear, even to them, how they can do that. I've urged them to try and come up with that plan and have offered support."

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Buller has acknowledged publicly that the inquiry will be asking the federal government for more time to do its work, and is preparing arguments on why it needs the extension — and more funding.

An interim progress report is set to be released next month.

Meanwhile, Acoose said she's convinced the success or failure of the exercise could hinge on speaking to those Indigenous women still behind bars.

"If they can't get in there, their stories are not going to be told," she said. "We will continue to go missing and murdered."

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