Prime Minister Stephen Harper is rebuffing calls for a national inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing aboriginal women in the wake of the death of a 15-year-old girl, saying the tragedy is first and foremost a crime – not part of a "sociological phenomenon" requiring further study.
Addressing reporters during his annual tour of the North, Mr. Harper called Tina Fontaine's death "terrible," but said such cases are a matter for law enforcement – a statement that provoked swift condemnation from aboriginal leaders.
"We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon," Mr. Harper said, noting the government has passed legislation aimed at protecting all Canadians. "We should view it as crime."
Tina's body was pulled from Winnipeg's Red River on Sunday, sparking calls for an inquiry from the Assembly of First Nations, Manitoba's Aboriginal Affairs Minister, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) and the federal NDP.
Asked why Ottawa won't consider a probe, Mr. Harper said there has already been "very fulsome study" of the matter, an apparent reference to a recent RCMP report that found 1,181 aboriginal women had either been killed or gone missing between 1980 and 2012.
"I'm not going to comment on the police investigation," Mr. Harper said of Tina's death. "But as the RCMP has said itself in its own study, the vast majority of these cases are addressed and are solved through police investigations, and we'll leave it in their hands."
Niigaan Sinclair, a University of Winnipeg aboriginal studies professor who helped organize Tuesday's vigil in memory of Tina, said Mr. Harper's comments reveal an "ignorance" of the much deeper cultural factors at play.
"It is profoundly unfortunate that the Prime Minister doesn't understand the most important epidemic facing this country, which is missing and murdered aboriginal women," Prof. Sinclair said. "This is an issue that every Canadian is responsible for."
NWAC's executive director, Claudette Dumont-Smith, called Mr. Harper's remarks "insensitive" and "irresponsible," arguing he doesn't seem to be focused on ways to prevent such tragedies.
"Why are there so many aboriginal women that are murdered compared to other women?" she said. "Doesn't he think that racism and sexism and colonialism play a part in all that?"
Beyond calls for a national inquiry, Tina's death has also raised questions about the child welfare system. At the request of her aunt who raised her, the teen had been in the care of Manitoba's Child and Family Services for about a month before her death. Thelma Favel said she was looking for support after Tina ran away several times, but now says the system "failed" the girl.
"I reached out for help, and thought I was doing something good," said Ms. Favel, who cared for Tina and her sister for more than 10 years after their father became frail with cancer.
Tina's case is specifically lending fresh urgency to efforts to revamp a provincial law that requires the findings of investigations conducted by the children's advocate to remain confidential.
Manitoba's Office of the Children's Advocate is investigating the public services Tina received as part of an automatic review that occurs whenever a child in care dies.
However, the results of the advocate's review, including any recommendations aimed at preventing future incidents, must remain confidential under current provincial legislation. The advocate's report is provided only to the Minister of Family Services, the Ombudsman and the chief medical examiner.
"We absolutely think we should do more public reporting and we're hopeful that the government is going to change our legislation," said Ainsley Krone, a spokeswoman for the advocate.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross stopped short of saying she supports legislative change, noting the importance of balancing confidentiality concerns.
"We are investigating that possibility," she said, adding she hopes to provide an answer by the fall on whether the government will pursue new legislation.
Questions about Tina's involvement in the child welfare system come as the province is working to implement recommendations from the inquiry into the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair, who was murdered by her mother and the woman's boyfriend in 2005 after prolonged abuse that was reported to CFS at least 13 times. Justice Ted Hughes made 62 recommendations, including several related to expanding the role of the children's advocate.