Provincial and territorial leaders threw their support Wednesday behind a national public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls, ratcheting up the pressure on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to follow suit.
There was support for an inquiry among the premiers who met with aboriginal leaders Wednesday ahead of the Council of the Federation meeting, said Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who will chair the premiers' summit Thursday.
She said violence against aboriginal women is a very important issue that has touched every Canadian jurisdiction and is extremely important to all the leaders who attended the meeting.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford and Newfoundland Premier Kathy Dunderdale were absent, but Wynne said that doesn't mean they don't support an inquiry.
"There were reasons why they couldn't be at the table, but certainly I will be speaking to them and asking them if they would be able to support the [National Aboriginal Organizations'] call for an inquiry."
Michele Audette, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said she viewed their absence as a message.
"It's probably for me, my perception or interpretation, that they're sending a message saying they're not in support for this national public inquiry," she said.
But Redford, who had been in Toronto on matters related to Alberta's flood aftermath, issued a statement later Wednesday saying she supports the decision taken at the meeting.
"I'm very pleased that premiers were able to take this important step forward together today," the statement said.
Redford was in Toronto on Wednesday for a meeting with the Insurance Bureau of Canada and various CEOs of insurance companies. A spokesperson said she had the meeting to press insurers to keep working directly with clients and to provide clear information to homeowners in the flood-hit province, and that it was the only time they could schedule the meeting.
First Nations' calls for a public inquiry on violence against aboriginal women have garnered support across the country in recent years.
Aboriginal leaders praised the attending premiers for supporting the cause, hailed as a major step in their crusade for an inquiry, which has been endorsed by Amnesty International Canada.
"This is an important expression of support," said Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
The Native Women's Association of Canada has been saying for 13 years that there's a rise in missing aboriginal women, Audette said. The organization has documented about 582 cases of missing or murdered women and girls.
Audette said she'll phone the federal government Thursday and push for a letter from the premiers to be sent to Harper and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt. She'll also be reaching out to the two missing premiers to see if they'll support an inquiry.
"We did a major, major step today – or a major moccasin step, I always say," she said.
Violence against aboriginal women is a "huge" issue in Manitoba, which has a lot of missing people, said Premier Greg Selinger.
"It speaks to the most vulnerable people in our community and when they go missing, we are all worse off," he said.
"And we want to make sure they're safe and our streets are safe and our neighbourhoods are safe and young women are safe regardless of who they are."
It's a big problem in the North too, particularly in small, isolated communities where women can't get help, said Northwest Territories Premier Bob MacLeod.
"I think this gives a statement that this is a serious problem and that all of the premiers want to see something done," he said.
Others issues discussed at the premiers' meeting with aboriginal groups included improvements in education for aboriginal students on and off reserve.
Funding for students on reserve is up to $3,500 less per pupil than students off reserve, Wynne said.
But Wynne and Atleo say they're not looking for Ottawa to hand over the responsibility to the provinces. They'd rather see the federal government work with the provinces and aboriginal communities to help aboriginal students succeed, said Wynne.
"The kinds of solutions that are working in PEI, that are working in British Columbia, that are going to work in Quebec and Ontario may be slightly different," she said.
"But what we need is the federal government at the table as a full partner in terms of funding their responsibilities and at the same time, recognizing that provincial governments bring huge expertise in education."