Native leaders and provincial and territorial officials will meet on the sidelines of this week's National Aboriginal Women's Summit to discuss plans for a roundtable on murdered and missing indigenous women – the first major step toward making the national forum a reality since the idea for it first emerged over the summer.
Aboriginal groups have been working behind the scenes to iron out the details for a roundtable, including the arduous task of finding a time when politicians and native leaders are free to sit down and hammer out solutions for a problem that's devastating this country's indigenous community.
The Native Women's Association of Canada, which is co-hosting the women's summit with the province of Nova Scotia, said aboriginal leaders will meet with senior government officials attending the event to "decide expectations, timing and process" for the national roundtable.
The three-day summit in Cape Breton kicks off Monday – the same day the Canadian Public Health Association is expected to release a statement adding its voice to the growing chorus calling for a federal inquiry into this country's more than 1,180 murdered and missing aboriginal women.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper outright dismissed those pleas in August, prompting native leaders and premiers to shift their focus to a roundtable. It's been two months since then, so this week's planning meeting shows the provinces, territories and aboriginal organizations remain dedicated to pressing ahead with a national forum.
Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod, who recently met in Ottawa with the five national aboriginal organizations leading the roundtable effort, said he plans to be in Cape Breton on Wednesday.
"Hopefully there'll be a good discussion on possible next steps and expectations [at the summit]," Premier McLeod said in a recent interview.
Kerri Irvin-Ross, Manitoba's Minister of Family Services, is also attending this week's summit. Her province has been at the centre of the murdered and missing aboriginal women issue – and especially so since the high-profile death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose August killing has also prompted fresh scrutiny of the child welfare system.
Ms. Irvin-Ross told The Globe in an interview in Winnipeg that aboriginals and all levels of government, including Ottawa, must work together to tackle the deep-rooted challenges facing Canada's native community. "It's all of our responsibility," she said.
Efforts are under way to peg the roundtable to a coming gathering of ministers of social services, which might be held in Vancouver in November. Still, NWAC executive director Claudette Dumont-Smith said it remains unclear whether the roundtable will happen this year or next. "There are just too many variables that need to be ironed out," she said in an e-mail.
Mr. McLeod, meanwhile, said he expects the forum will be held in early 2015, perhaps right before or after the next Aboriginal Affairs Working Group meeting in the Northwest Territories.
Aboriginal leaders want the roundtable to draw representatives from various levels of government, such as premiers and federal ministers whose portfolios touch on aboriginal issues. They say Ottawa's participation is critical in addressing a tragedy that's national in scope.
So far, The Globe has confirmed that Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch, who assumed leadership of the file concerning murdered and missing aboriginal women in the spring, will attend. Spokespeople for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, Justice Minister Peter MacKay and Health Minister Rona Ambrose all referred the The Globe to Ms. Leitch's office. The Prime Minister's Office, meantime, said Mr. Harper will not attend because the government is focused on taking action, not further study.
This week's roundtable planning session is not part of the official summit agenda, which includes a keynote address by Idle No More activist Pam Palmater and a "circle of hope" to honour murdered and missing aboriginal women. Julie Towers, Nova Scotia's deputy aboriginal affairs minister, said violence against indigenous women will inevitably come up during panel discussions, but will be raised within the context of the summit's three themes: empowerment, equity and leadership.
With a report from The Canadian Press