First Nations in Ontario are laying the groundwork for their own public inquiry into the disproportionate number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls after being stonewalled for years by the federal Conservative government.
An online fundraising campaign called Who Is She will be announced in Toronto on Wednesday to pay for the judicial hearings that Isadore Day, the regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in the province, says he hopes will prompt a Canada-wide discussion.
"We are doing this from the perspective of Ontario because that's what we are mandated to work from," Mr. Day said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. "However, we feel it's very important, and it's a national imperative, to have dialogue. So we want to push this hard enough and make clear that this is a dialogue that Canada needs to have."
An RCMP report last year found there were 1,181 police-recorded cases in Canada of murdered and missing aboriginal women between 1980 and 2012 – 164 missing and 1,017 homicide victims. A supplementary report last spring said an additional 32 murders of aboriginal women took place in parts of the country patrolled by the Mounties in 2013 and 2014.
First Nations leaders are joined in their call for a national inquiry by national and international organizations including the United Nations and Amnesty International as well the premiers of Canada.
But Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and his ministers have refused the demand, saying there have been enough studies and the government has already implemented crime prevention measures and other programs to tackle the tragedy.
The other political parties say that is the wrong approach. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has promised to call the inquiry within the first 100 days of his mandate if his party wins the Oct. 19 election. And Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has also promised to call an inquiry saying, "Mr. Harper is on the wrong side of history."
But the Ontario chiefs agreed in June, 2014, to organize their own inquiry, and are not going to wait for the outcome of the federal vote. Mr. Day, who was elected Ontario regional chief in June of this year, said at a summer meeting of the AFN in Montreal that he was ready to move ahead unilaterally.
"I set out the commitment that Ontario is not going to be waiting for a federal government to make a call, or we're not going to wait for the AFN to participate in another roundtable" with federal and provincial politicians, he said. "Ontario is going to chart the way forward."
The commitment by the NDP and the Liberals to hold an inquiry is helpful, Mr. Day said. "However, I think it's really important for First Nations and First Nations organizations to set out what it is we're prepared to do."
The Who Is She campaign will begin with an online fundraising website that will feature, among other things, photos of missing women and messages from their families. Mr. Day said the Ontario chiefs have yet to set a target for how much they will need to collect – though they acknowledge that the inquiry process will be expensive.
But Mr. Day said he has been promised good co-operation from both the Ontario government and the Ontario Provincial Police. And although the murders and disappearances of indigenous women seem especially prevalent in the Prairie provinces and British Columbia, he said there are many cases in Ontario that have yet to be solved.
"If we're able to raise a level of awareness and even connect with those women and girls and our people that are falling through the cracks right now," he said, "if we're able to save one life, if we're able to begin the process of opening up cold cases and if we're able to start to resolve and find opportunities for a healthy grieving for these families, that's what we want to achieve."