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Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett speaks during a news conference on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry in Ottawa, Monday, February 15, 2016.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The number of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada is "way bigger" than 1,200, the federal Indigenous Affairs Minister says, provoking scrutiny of a commonly cited official figure ahead of a national inquiry into the tragedies.

A 2014 RCMP report found there were 1,181 police-recorded cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women across all jurisdictions in Canada from 1980 to 2012 –164 missing and 1,017 homicide victims.

In an e-mailed statement to The Globe and Mail on Monday, the office of federal minister Carolyn Bennett indicated her remarks were based on concerns voiced by survivors and victims' families – not on new data. "The families believe that the number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls is higher than 1,200," her office said.

The RCMP did not respond to requests for comment Monday on whether its number may be understating the problem.

"It's bigger than 1,200," Dr. Bennett said in Ottawa. "Way bigger than 1,200."

Dr. Bennett's comments come as the government concluded cross-country consultations with families of victims, indigenous organizations and provincial and territorial representatives about the scope and mandate of the inquiry.

At a pre-inquiry session in Toronto earlier this month, Dr. Bennett said families have time and again described racism and an "uneven application of justice" as it relates to how cases involving indigenous women are handled – including around whether police deem a death a homicide, suicide or a result of natural causes.

Dawn Lavell-Harvard, the president of Native Women's Association of Canada, said indigenous organizations and grassroots leaders have been "saying all along" that the official number does not capture the magnitude of the issue. "It's about time they started acknowledging the enormity of the problem," she told The Globe on Monday.

She said some families did not go to police with missing-person reports because of long-standing mistrust of law enforcement, while others believe their relative's case was unduly deemed a death by natural causes, for example.

In an update to the RCMP's 2014 report, released last year, the federal force said there were 32 additional murders of indigenous women in 2013 and 2014 in jurisdictions under the control of the RCMP, which is consistent with levels of the past decade.

Ms. Lavell-Harvard said she would like the RCMP to release its data and make the list of names public; otherwise, she said, it is impossible for families to know whether their loved one's case is included in the reports. The Globe has filed an access-to-information request for the RCMP's list of indigenous female homicide victims, but the force required an extension and has yet to provide the names.

"If this inquiry does its job," Ms. Lavell-Harvard said, "then the magnitude of this problem will come out."

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