The Conservative government is throwing its support behind the creation of a new committee on missing and murdered aboriginal women one day after the release of a scathing human-rights report documenting allegations of abuse and neglect by the RCMP.
The move does not go as far as the national commission of inquiry that native groups and human-rights observers have been demanding, but it is a striking shift in approach for a government that has rarely spoken directly about the crisis.
The Native Women's Association of Canada has documented nearly 600 disappearances and deaths of aboriginal women and girls in Canada, with about 40 per cent of those cases occurring after 2000, and roughly half of the suspected murders still unsolved.
Advocates have asked for a national commission of inquiry on the issue for years, but their calls grew louder this week after New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report accusing the RCMP of failing to investigate many of the disappearances adequately. The report also catalogued numerous allegations of physical and sexual abuse by RCMP officers.
While the government has so far side-stepped questions about a national inquiry, it agreed on Thursday to support a Liberal motion to create a committee with a mandate to study violence against aboriginal women and make recommendations on how to curb it. Under the terms of the Liberal proposal, the committee would have the means to travel across the country and collect evidence, and would be expected to report to Parliament on its findings within a year.
Kerry-Lynne Findlay, parliamentary secretary to Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, said the government "welcomes this opportunity to review what has been done and to look for more solutions."
In the House of Commons on Thursday, Ms. Findlay said "a special committee appointed to study this complex and urgent issue could focus on practical solutions for the future, so that generations to come will no longer have to face the risks faced by those of the past and of today."
Ms. Findlay also suggested the government has already taken steps to address violence against aboriginal women, including its tough-on-crime bills and initiatives launched through the federal justice department.
Claudette Dumont-Smith, executive director of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said that while a national commission of inquiry is still needed, she is willing to support other actions that will help keep the issue of violence against aboriginal women in the spotlight.
"We have no idea if and when the current government will agree to a public inquiry process," Ms. Dumont-Smith said. "So at least having a Parliamentary committee in place, and hopefully starting soon, will keep this issue alive in the minds of Canadians and among politicians."
Wally Oppal, the former B.C. attorney-general who looked at some of these issues as head of the inquiry into why serial killer Robert Pickton was not stopped earlier, said it would be great if such a committee led to more information on the issue.
"If the committee can garner more information by doing this, then more power to them," the former appeal-court justice said in an interview on Thursday.
Stewart Phillip, the head of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, dismissed the prospect of the committee, which he said falls far short of the full-fledged commission that the families of missing and murdered women deserve.
"This is a typical move on the part of the Harper government to come forward with an idea in a unilateral way without consultation," said Mr. Phillip, speaking after a memorial march for missing and murdered women in Vancouver.
Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, who introduced the motion to create the special committee, said she hopes it will have the capacity to deal with the issue on a broad scale.
"We are still calling for a national public inquiry, but it seems like this government isn't about to do that," she said. "So we can use this as a beginning to be able to address the issue and begin to get some recommendations toward an action plan."