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Natives praise Throne Speech's attention to slain, missing aboriginal women

AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo

Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail

Wednesday's Throne Speech took direct aim at Canada's national epidemic of missing and murdered aboriginal women, saying the government will address the "disturbing number of unsolved cases" in a "pressing criminal justice priority."

It's a huge step forward, said Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo, and it comes on the heels of two decades of advocacy and numerous calls to action.

The speech committed the government not only to work with aboriginal leaders to settle ongoing land claims, but also to improve water treatment on reserves, tackle gender inequalities and make education a priority - issues the Assembly of First Nations has been lobbying for as a vital investments in the country's native communities.

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It's a stark contrast to last year's Throne Speech, whose only mention of Canada's aboriginals was in reference to protecting vulnerable populations and working with multiple levels of government.

"I felt like the government had heard what it is that the chiefs had been saying," said Mr. Atleo, the young national chief elected last spring.

The speech also mentions the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document Ottawa has repeatedly refused to sign, calling it "vague and ambiguous."

The language in the speech leaves it unclear whether that position has changed. It says the government will "take steps to endorse" the declaration, but goes on to note that it will do so "in a manner fully consistent with Canada's Constitution and laws."

Nonetheless, the endorsement is "an important step forward," Mr. Atleo said, adding that he hopes the declaration will help define "a new working relationship" with Canada's aboriginal communities.

"I think the government agrees the processes they have in place aren't working."

But Grand Chief Stewart Philip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said he's disappointed the government didn't commit to signing the declaration, period.

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"It's a highly qualified reference. It describes the document as being aspirational when in our view it's a historical document that establishes international standards relative to the recognition of all our human and land rights and our right of self determination," he said. "I think that it would have been nce if they had simply embraced it."

The Native Women's Association estimates there are about 520 women missing across the country, although some estimates put that number as high as 3,000.

If the government is starting to take that crisis seriously, said Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Vancouver-based Battered Women's Support Services, it's been a long time coming.

"On the ground, we'll need to see those words in action," she said -- to prevent aboriginal women from going missing in the first place, as well as putting greater resources towards finding the ones who have disappeared.

In its reference to the missing women crisis, the speech makes special mention of the federally funded Sisters in Spirit initiative -- a body dedicated to addressing violence against aboriginal women. The mention came as a surprise, said director Kate Rexe: The group still hasn't gotten word if their federal funding, which runs out this month, will be renewed.

Mr. Atleo said he's encouraged by the speech, especially the references to education, an issue he has pushed hard for himself. First Nations leaders had been bracing for cuts to the $300-million a year Post-Secondary Student Support Program, which Mr. Atleo hopes will help put 65,000 people through school in the next five years. In recession-tightened times, he said, Ottawa needs to see investing in the country's young aboriginal community as a stimulus plan.

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"There's every reason to look to the booming aboriginal youth population in this country as a natural fit for the labour force," he said. "By 2026 we can close the education and employment gap. It'll mean close to a $180-billion contribution to Canada's GDP."

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