After decades of advocacy, victims' families and indigenous leaders are rejoicing at the launch of the first phase of a national inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered aboriginal women – a probe the Liberal government promises will be shaped by input from those who have been most affected by the tragedies.
Clutching eagle feathers on Parliament Hill Tuesday, three federal ministers outlined the two-month consultation process that will help determine the scope and duration of the inquiry, as well as who will lead it. The consultations will begin later this week, when the ministers of justice, indigenous affairs and status of women hold closed-door meetings with victims' families from the Ottawa area.
"We will listen clearly to their voices," Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told reporters, just hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau assured a gathering of hundreds of First Nations chiefs that no relationship is more important to him that the one with Canada's indigenous people.
"No inquiry, as we know, can undo what has happened, nor can it restore what we have lost. But it can help us find ways forward, because we know, as a country, that we can and must do better."
Asked about whether the government would consider reforming or repealing the Indian Act in its efforts to address the systemic factors that render indigenous women disproportionately more vulnerable to violence, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said "absolutely," and Ms. Wilson-Raybould added it "could be the subject of discussion."
The government will hear directly from victims' relatives across the country, as well as from national aboriginal organizations, front-line social workers and provincial and territorial representatives as it formulates a plan for the inquiry, which is slated to begin in the spring.
Calls for a national inquiry date back at least to 1993, when indigenous groups and a Thunder Bay police commissioner espoused the need for a federal probe into the unsolved killings of aboriginal women. The Globe and Mail reported at the time that an indigenous group had collected 3,000 petition signatures.
Tuesday's announcement marked the first step toward an inquiry that proponents hope will culminate in concrete action. It comes more than a year after the RCMP released a report that found that 1,181 aboriginal women were killed or went missing between 1980 and 2012. The launch of the consultation process was lauded by victims' families, indigenous organizations and the governments of Alberta and Manitoba, where roughly half of all female homicide victims are indigenous, according to the RCMP report.
"We can't do this alone any more," Bernadette Smith, whose sister Claudette Osborne has been missing since 2008, told reporters as she fought to control her emotions. "We need Canada to help. Our women are loved. They're not just someone who is disposable. We miss them every day."
Ms. Smith flew in from Winnipeg so she could learn first-hand about what is being planned. Last year, after Tina Fontaine's body was pulled from the city's Red River and her death was deemed a homicide, community members began to drag the river in the hope of finding clues into unsolved deaths and disappearances. She praised the government's commitment to putting families at the centre of the process, saying, "we're the experts, unfortunately."
Dawn Lavell-Harvard, the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, expressed hope the inquiry will "open our eyes" so that powerful decision-makers have the "right information" to tackle the issue. "This is the important first step," she said. "And I think what's important is we're taking that step together."
The Liberals campaigned on a pledge to "immediately" launch an inquiry at a cost of $40-million over two years, but Dr. Bennett said the figure and timeline were placeholders. She said the budget and duration of the inquiry will become clearer once Canadians weigh in, including via an online survey posted to a government website in the coming weeks.
"Our aim is to hear from as many people as possible," Dr. Bennett said, adding that she, Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu will "deliberate" on the information gleaned, including as it relates to who will lead the inquiry.
The former Conservative government dismissed calls for a federal probe, with some members narrowing the discussion to domestic violence. But a recent Globe investigation highlighted that family violence is not the whole story. It found that indigenous women are roughly seven times more likely than other Canadian women to die at the hands of a serial killer. The new government said the revelation underscored the need for a national inquiry.
Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau told chiefs at their annual meeting in Gatineau, Que., that the Liberals would deliver on their campaign promises, including the implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which detailed the abuses suffered in the residential-school system. He also said Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women "deserve justice."
Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, said the address was well-received, noting the leaders "were especially pleased" when the Prime Minister spoke of the inquiry.
"We are still feeling the intergenerational effects of colonization and residential schools," he said. "We still see that every day in our communities – the breakdown of self-identity, self-worth, the breakdown of families, communities and nations … We need to bring back that warrior spirit."