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Sharon Armstrong of Ottawa takes part in a vigil on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 5, 2014, for Loretta Saunders and to call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.SEAN KILPATRICK/The Canadian Press

Nova Scotia's three main party leaders have joined the voices calling for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women after the slaying of Loretta Saunders.

Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil called Ms. Saunders's death a tragic reminder of a serious issue.

"I commend the federal government for its efforts so far, but I urge my federal colleagues to take this work one step further," Mr. McNeil said on Thursday in a joint statement with the leaders of the Progressive Conservatives and NDP.

Ms. Saunders, a 26-year-old Inuk woman from Labrador, was studying at Saint Mary's University in Halifax when she vanished last month. At the time, the honours student was writing her thesis on murdered and missing aboriginal women.

Her remains were found by the side of a New Brunswick highway two weeks after her disappearance. Blake Legette, 25, and his 28-year-old girlfriend, Victoria Henneberry, are charged with first-degree murder in her death.

It is estimated there are hundreds of cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women dating back to the 1960s. A United Nations human-rights investigator called that statistic disturbing last year during a fact-finding visit to Canada in which he also urged the federal government to hold an inquiry.

Canada's provincial and territorial leaders backed the request for a formal inquiry into the issue after meeting with aboriginal leaders last July. The pressure on Ottawa to act has continued to mount since Ms. Saunders's death.

The federal Conservatives say they renewed funding to combat violence against aboriginal women in their recent budget, and have so far resisted pleas for an inquiry.

A special parliamentary committee has also been studying the issue, but Nova Scotia Tory Opposition Leader Jamie Baillie said the time has come for a full-fledged national inquiry, calling it "an important next step."

NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald said the death of Ms. Saunders death highlights what she calls a troubling pattern of violence against women that needs to be addressed by all levels of government.

"Efforts must be made to examine and understand more fully what steps must be taken to end the unacceptable rate of death and disappearance among aboriginal women in Canada," she said.

The provincial government said Mr. McNeil has written to the federal ministers of justice, aboriginal affairs and the status of women expressing the need for an inquiry.