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Photos and roses are place on the ground as part of a memorial to missing women in Vancouver on Dec. 17, 2012.

JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The threat of retribution prevents many native women from lodging human-rights complaints against the powerful members of their communities, Canada's Human Rights Commissioner says.

David Langtry says his office held roundtable discussions across the country in 2013 with almost 100 women, some from reserves and some from off-reserve communities.

"What we learned," wrote Mr. Langtry in his annual report released Tuesday, "is that for many of them, particularly in remote communities, the Canadian Human Rights Act is meaningless. They are unlikely to seek its protections, they say, for a number of reasons, including fear of retaliation."

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Members of First Nations have filed hundreds of complaints since the federal Conservative government moved in 2008 to change the law to allow the Canadian Human Rights Commission to look at issues such as reserve housing and federal funding for reserve services.

But lawyers working in the area of aboriginal justice said the Canadian human-rights regime can be somewhat ineffective on reserves where chiefs and council members don't view themselves as being accountable to outside legal regimes.

Some aboriginal women told the human-rights commission they fear that the mere act of lodging a complaint against the police or powerful members of their communities will leave them without access to important health and social services or could lead to intimidation and acts of violence.

"Truth be told, some leaders are offenders of violence against women," one of the native women told the commission. "It's so entrenched, many women live in fear. That is our sad reality, and it's tough."

The report comes as native groups across the country are demanding a national inquiry into violence against native women – a call that Mr. Langtry has joined and which he reiterated in his report. David Gollob, the director of communications for the CHRC who helped write the report, said in an interview that several aboriginal women told the commission they had to leave their community after filing a complaint.

The CHRC is calling for all parties – the First Nations organizations, the community leaders and the government of Canada – to take action to ensure that aboriginal victims of discrimination can have their human-rights cases heard, he said. "What would have been the point of extending human-rights protections to residents of First Nations communities," Mr. Gollob asked, "… if they are not able to use it?"

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