Two federal cabinet ministers have agreed to meet with premiers and indigenous leaders in Ottawa later this month to address the problem of murdered and missing aboriginal women, ending speculation that the Conservative government might not partake in the national round table.
Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt say they will attend the Feb. 27 roundtable, which some participants view as a first step toward a federal inquiry – a probe Prime Minister Stephen Harper has dismissed as unnecessary despite the pleas of aboriginal groups and premiers. The government also rejected requests for financial help to hold the round table.
"We all have a role to play in protecting aboriginal women and girls," said Andrew McGrath, a spokesman for Ms. Leitch, the lead minister on the issue. "That's why Minister Leitch and Minister Valcourt will represent the government of Canada."
Claudette Dumont-Smith, the executive director of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said her organization and the other national aboriginal groups organizing the round table received a letter from Ms. Leitch on Friday stating that she and Mr. Valcourt would attend.
Three other ministers – Justice Minister Peter MacKay, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and Health Minister Rona Ambrose – had also been invited to participate in the high-profile event. However, a government source with knowledge of the planning process said organizers ultimately requested that each jurisdiction limit their representation to two parties and their respective officials. The Assembly of First Nations confirmed two parties from each delegation will be allowed at the table at any given time.
Ottawa came under intense pressure to tackle violence against aboriginal women after the RCMP released a report in May that said 1,181 indigenous women were killed or went missing in Canada between 1980 and 2012. The unprecedented report found native women are much more likely to die or disappear than other women in this country.
Calls for a national inquiry ramped up in the wake of two starkly similar attacks on aboriginal teens in Winnipeg: Tina Fontaine was found dead in the city's Red River in August; Rinelle Harper was discovered nearly lifeless on a footpath alongside the Assiniboine River in November. Ms. Harper survived and is now publicly advocating for a federal probe.
The woman who raised Tina, Thelma Favel, said she hopes the round table will "open people's eyes to the problem" and lead to a plan that will help prevent other families from suffering in the future.
"It's a step – a first step, anyway, toward trying to find out why this is happening," Ms. Favel, Tina's great aunt, said Sunday. "I have closure, in some way, because I have her [body]. I know where she is. So many other families don't have that yet."
Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, welcomed the decision of Ms. Leitch and Mr. Valcourt to participate in the roundtable. "The Assembly of First Nations has steadfastly held that the federal government must work with us, as must all levels of government, to create and implement an action plan to prevent and end violence against indigenous women and girls," he said. "We still press for a national inquiry and will take all steps to achieve this."
Proponents of a national inquiry say the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women cannot be addressed through criminal-justice measures alone – that leaders and communities must examine the underlying problems, such as poverty and discrimination, and tackle them head-on in cities and on reserves.
Mr. McGrath, the spokesman for Ms. Leitch, pointed out that the government recently unveiled its own action plan to address violence against aboriginal women that invested in the creation of a DNA-based missing persons' databank, developed more community safety plans and provided better resources for First Nations' leaders to address the problem on reserves.