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Family members grieve with Tina Fontaine’s casket on the Sagkeeng First Nation. Her death, retired judge Ted Hughes says, could mark a turning point because “public attention has been seized … A roundtable is the beginning of what might be the long-term solution.”Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

Premiers and native leaders calling for a national roundtable shouldn't limit their scope to murdered and missing aboriginal women and should instead tackle the systemic failures underlying a range of problems, including the over-representation of aboriginals in jail and in the child-welfare system, a prominent retired judge says.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ted Hughes said he was pleased provincial premiers and aboriginal groups have compromised on their demand for a national inquiry in favour of a roundtable – a proposal that came out of this week's Council of the Federation gathering on Prince Edward Island, where two premiers cited Mr. Hughes's work during a day-long meeting with aboriginal leadership.

But Mr. Hughes, who helped engineer sweeping child-welfare reforms in Manitoba and British Columbia, said the dialogue should cover everything from unemployment levels, to suicide rates, substance abuse and high school dropout rates. Those factors, he said, lead not just to the plight of aboriginal women, but also to the "gross disproportion" of aboriginal children in provincial care and the over-representation of natives behind bars.

"The uproar over missing and murdered women has spotlighted the systemic issues, and I think it has opened the gate to get serious about solving root causes," said Mr. Hughes, who was also a federal treaty negotiator. "But if they're going to limit the roundtable to [murdered and missing aboriginal women], they're not on the right track."

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger told The Globe that aboriginal leaders had raised the prospect of broadening the roundtable beyond murdered and missing aboriginal women. He said he and other premiers would support expanding the agenda if that's what native stakeholders want.

The Council of the Federation meetings kicked off in the wake of the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg on Aug. 17. The premiers last year called for an inquiry into Canada's more than 1,100 missing and murdered women, but Ottawa has so far rebuffed that appeal. Amid renewed pressure last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper drew criticism for saying Tina's death is foremost a crime, not part of a "sociological phenomenon."

Asked whether Justice Minister Peter MacKay would attend any future roundtable, a spokeswoman said there was nothing to add to Wednesday's statement, which reiterated Ottawa's position that "now is the time to take action, not to continue to study the issue."

Mr. Hughes said while he disputes Mr. Harper's assertion that Tina's death isn't indicative of systemic failures, he agrees a national inquiry is the wrong approach. "My view is let's get on with it," said Mr. Hughes, who led a $14-million inquiry into how the Manitoba child welfare system failed Phoenix Sinclair, a five-year-old aboriginal girl murdered by her mother and stepfather.

Mr. Hughes said he submitted his report to the Manitoba government on Dec. 16, but before he packed his bags to leave the next day, he requested a meeting with Mr. Selinger. Mr. Hughes said he implored the Premier to take the issue of the over-representation of aboriginal children in care to the premiers' meeting. Mr. Hughes said he also met with British Columbia Premier Christy Clark to discuss the problem ahead of the Charlottetown gathering.

During meetings Wednesday, the two premiers raised Mr. Hughes's concerns. Mr. Selinger said his colleagues and native leaders agreed the aboriginal working group, which was formed in 2009 and will be co-chaired by Manitoba's Minister of Child and Family Services, would look at crafting a national plan to reduce the number of native children in care. "Everyone around the table was very supportive of this," he said.

In Manitoba, where half the murdered women over the past three decades were aboriginal, the rate of native children in care is striking: Roughly 17 per cent of the province's population identifies as aboriginal, yet more than 85 per cent of the children in care are native. And while provincial data show the number of non-aboriginal children in care fell from 1,359 to 1,307 between 2012 and 2013 – the most recent years available – the number of native children rose from 8,371 to 8,633.

Mr. Hughes said the number of aboriginal children in care is intertwined with the matter of murdered and missing aboriginal women. Tina, he said, is case in point: The teen, who had run away from her Powerview-Pine Falls home several times in the spring, was in Child and Family Services care when she was reported missing Aug. 9. Still, Mr. Hughes said it's too soon to know whether the system failed her.

"Tragically, Tina Fontaine's life cannot be restored," the 87-year-old said, adding he believes her death could mark a turning point. "Public attention has been seized … A roundtable is the beginning of what might be the long-term solution."