Skip to main content

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, right, sits with Rinelle Harper, 16, who survived a brutal attack in Winnipeg in November, wait for the start of the National Roundtable on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Ottawa on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Federal cabinet ministers, premiers, indigenous leaders and families of homicide victims closed out the first-ever roundtable on missing and murdered indigenous women agreeing that immediate action is required to stop the violence.

But few concrete steps were taken during the day-long, closed-door event. And Ontario's Premier said she is frustrated that more was not accomplished given the urgency of the issue.

"There is more that we can do and I feel impatient because I think we know what those things are and I think we need to push ourselves very hard in the coming months to make sure that we live up to our own expectations," Kathleen Wynne told reporters at a news conference after the roundtable ended.

In addition to agreeing to implement a national awareness campaign – the funding for which was murky – the delegates endorsed a framework of action that contained little in the way of concrete measures, and agreed to meet again at another roundtable in 2016.

In addition, Premier Greg Selinger of Manitoba said his province will sponsor a meeting of police organizations and justice officials from across the country to discuss ways to address the problem of the murdered and missing women.

The problem has been brought into focus by an RCMP report last spring that said at least 1,181 indigenous women and girls were killed or disappeared between 1980 and 2012.

The federal Conservative government was represented at the roundtable by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt and Kellie Leitch, the Minister for the Status of Women.

The ministers made no new commitments, financial or otherwise, but promised to move forward on an action plan their government introduced last September.

"In an effort to denounce and prevent violence, and because we believe that men and boys, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike must be part of the solution, we are supporting community-driven projects to engage men and boys," Mr. Valcourt told the roundtable.

The federal government has refused to hold a national inquiry about missing and murdered aboriginal women. Some victims' family members who took part in the roundtable said they too see little reason for an inquiry and believe the money would be better spent elsewhere.

But others, including Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said an inquiry is the only way to provide a real voice to the victims and to get at the root of the problem.

Both Ms. Leitch and Mr. Valcourt have said they believe the solution to the violence rests largely with changing the behaviours and attitudes of men on reserves who they say are most often the perpetrators of the crimes. That angered some indigenous leaders who say the issue is much broader than one of family violence.

"Stop making it into an aboriginal issue by blaming our men and boys only," said Dawn Harvard, the interim president of the Native Women's Association of Canada.

She said she used her time to address the roundtable to urge against the "finger-pointing" and to instead focus on the social causes, such as poverty, a lack of housing and poor education.

"At the end of the day, we need more than just words and positive moral support," she said. "We need some actual commitments."

One indication of how little co-operation might result from the meeting was the fact Ms. Leitch and Mr. Valcourt did not appear with the premiers, the families, and the indigenous leaders at a post-meeting news conference. They instead held their own media availability in a hotel across the street.

Ms. Leitch said the decision to hold two separate news conferences was made as a gesture of respect to the families. But Ms. Wynne said the decision made no sense to her. "I was surprised that they weren't going to be here," she said.

Still, Mr. Bellegarde and families of the victims said it was a positive step just to have multiple levels of government in the room to talk about the issue.

David Chartrand, the president of the Manitoba Metis Federation, said there was frustration in the room, but also respect. He said the issue of a national inquiry "kept coming up."

"The people raised it but [the government] didn't bite," he said.

Judy Maas, one of the four ceremonial witnesses chosen by victims' families to speak on their behalf, told the roundtable delegates that she and others are trying to be a voice to the voiceless. Her sister, Cynthia Maas, died in 2010 in British Columbia at the hands of Cody Legebokoff – a white serial killer.

"We will not idle … as our sisters, mothers, daughters, aunties and grandmothers go missing and continue be violated by any kinds of violence," she said, quoting from her speaking notes in an interview with The Globe. "We will no longer remain invisible. We will take our rightful place. Our voices are the voices of those who have suffered, are in pain, those who are no longer with us and those who are yet to come."

Interact with The Globe