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Politics Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister urges greater response to plight of native women

Manitoba Minister of Aboriginal Eric Robinson i his office at the Legislature in Winnipeg Manitoba, September 3, 2014.

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

Manitoba's Aboriginal Affairs Minister was near Tataskweyak Cree Nation in the province's north when news broke that Tina Fontaine's body had been pulled from Winnipeg's Red River.

It wasn't until he got cellular reception further south, toward the city, that he learned of the aboriginal teenager's brutal killing. The minister, Eric Robinson of Cross Lake First Nation, thought to himself, "Not again."

Mr. Robinson had seen this narrative unfold time and again in his province, where half of the female murder victims over the past 30 years have been aboriginal. He grew up on the same reserve as Helen Betty Osborne and, as an MLA in the early 1990s, he arranged a jailhouse meeting between the slain aboriginal woman's family and the man convicted of her 1971 murder.

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In an interview with The Globe at his legislature office on Wednesday, Mr. Robinson reflected on the problem of murdered and missing aboriginal women in Manitoba and across the country, saying Tina's death has "touched a nerve."

"It's not only a Manitoba issue. It's not a Winnipeg issue. It's not a Regina, Saskatoon or Edmonton issue. It's not a '[highway] of tears' issue. It's not a Pickton murders rampage-type issue," he said, referring to disappearances and killings in British Columbia. "There are 1,200 murdered and missing women, for Pete's sake."

Mr. Robinson, a residential school survivor who has lost loved ones to death and disappearance, didn't mince words. He said he lies in bed at night wondering whether there would be more outcry if the missing and murdered were "fairer-skinned" women. "I think Indian people are viewed to be dispensable, in a lot of ways," he said.

He also had harsh words for the child-welfare system, which has come under increased scrutiny because Tina was in provincial care when she was reported missing Aug. 9. Asked what's wrong with the system, he said, "What's not wrong with it?"

Despite increased pressure in the wake of Tina's death, the federal government has rebuffed calls for a national inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing aboriginal women, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying the teen's killing isn't part of a "sociological phenomenon."

But after the premiers met last week on Prince Edward Island and called for a national roundtable, Ottawa signalled on Wednesday it is open to sitting down with provincial and aboriginal leaders.

"The progress that is under way must continue," Justice Minister Peter MacKay told reporters in Halifax. "That includes meetings and consultations, for certain, and could include a roundtable of sorts."

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Mr. Robinson said while a roundtable is a "good idea" because it's more likely to draw federal participation, the end goal remains a national probe. "After all, Indian people are Canadians, too."

Mr. Robinson described how, as chair of the aboriginal affairs ministers working group, he pressed his provincial counterparts three years ago to make the issue of murdered and missing aboriginal women a priority.

He faced some reluctance at first: One eastern province, which he wouldn't name, claimed no such problem existed there. "And then lo and behold a week after, we heard about a native woman being killed in that area," he recalled.

Mr. Robinson, a 60-year-old father who said he worries about the safety of his own daughter and nieces, has for years fought to highlight the plight of aboriginal women and sees Manitoba as a leader on the file.

He has co-hosted the annual Wiping Away the Tears gathering, where families of the dead and disappeared share their accounts and vent frustrations. He hired a special adviser in 2011 to focus solely on the issue – a role he believes is unique to Manitoba.

His NDP government launched Project Devote, a joint Winnipeg Police Service and RCMP task force aimed at addressing unsolved homicides and missing person cases. It also mounted the country's first monument to aboriginal murdered and missing women, which was unveiled just days before Tina was pulled from the river, wrapped in plastic.

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Mr. Robinson, a recovered alcoholic who wears a turquoise ring to symbolize his sobriety, also recently visited the protest camp across the street in Memorial Park, where he spoke with activists trying to raise awareness of the issue. On Wednesday, protesters there expressed relief that the Conservative government appears open to a national roundtable.

Mr. Robinson, for his part, has his eye on an inquiry.

"[A roundtable] is a starting point," he said, "but certainly I don't think anybody is giving up."

With a report from the Canadian Press

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