The federal Status of Women Minister hopes to emerge from Canada's first national round table on murdered and missing aboriginal women with plans for anti-violence initiatives directed at aboriginal men, saying she has a "good sense" of the people who are committing the crimes.
The Conservative government is using its assertion that the disproportionate number of deaths and disappearances is largely related to domestic violence to bolster its arguments against a national inquiry into the tragedies.
"We have a good sense of the individuals who are perpetuating these crimes and I think that's something that's very, very important for us to take into account, and it allows us also to take action," Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch told The Globe and Mail on the eve of Friday's round table with premiers, native leaders and victims' families. "I know we have some initiatives that I would like to move forward on, on men and boys' campaigns. I'm confident that other provinces and other aboriginal organizations have those, too. Let's do them together."
Indigenous groups, however, point out that many of the women met their fate in major Canadian cities or on highways – not just reserves – and that some of the worst aggressors, including Vancouver's Robert Pickton, have been non-aboriginal men. They also argue that the violence has deep social roots in poverty, discrimination and poor education that lead indigenous women into high-risk lifestyles.
Some of the victims' families who gathered at a downtown Ottawa hotel Thursday are looking for a different kind of action than what Ms. Leitch described: the national inquiry the government has rejected.
Diane Lilley, whose sister was found dead in northern B.C. in 1990, will attend the round table as one of four ceremonial witnesses chosen by victims' families. Ms. Lilley said she plans to "confront" government leaders and push for a national probe.
"I'm going to tell them there should be an inquiry," she said. "These women were human. They were loved."
A report released last spring by the RCMP found at least 1,181 indigenous women were killed or disappeared between 1980 and 2012.
Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said this week that the round table must lead to specific investments in programs and infrastructure to address inequities. The National Chief said Ottawa's action plan to address violence against aboriginal women is underfunded and that the $25-million it promises over five years is insufficient. The action plan, released in September, is largely focused on domestic violence.
In defending its refusal to launch an inquiry, the Conservative government says now is the time for action, not further probing. Several cabinet ministers have said the issue of murdered and missing aboriginal women has already been studied many times in the past.
On Thursday, a group of researchers put out a report analyzing 58 studies conducted by native organizations, human-rights groups and various levels of government. The Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Indigenous Women says, of the 700 recommendations borne from those studies, only a few have been implemented.
"If there's any room Stephen Harper should have been in, it's that one," said Cheryl Maloney, the president of the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association, as she pointed at the hotel conference room where families were gathered. "I would challenge him to sit in that room and walk out to tell me that what's being done [to address the problem] is good enough."
Ms. Leitch said she had yet to read the coalition's report, but added that, from what she's heard, it supports the view that action is required.
Bob McLeod, the Premier of the Northwest Territories who is chairing the round table, said it is "a little too simplistic" to assume the violence can be ended by changing the behaviours of indigenous men. Still, he is hopeful that real results can be achieved during the one-day meeting, saying that "for the first time on this issue, we are all in a room talking together."
The four ceremonial witnesses have been allotted roughly five minutes each to speak – not enough, Ms. Lilley said, to get their points across. Other family members will attend the round table as provincial or territorial delegates, or as part of native groups' delegations.
Upward of 100 relatives of missing and murdered aboriginal women gathered at the Ottawa hotel Thursday to share their stories and discuss ways to better protect aboriginal women.
Vivian Tuccaro wants the federal government to see her daughter, Amber Tuccaro, who was found dead in 2012, as more than a statistic.
Judy Maas's sister, Cynthia Maas, died in 2010 in British Columbia at the hands of Cody Legebokoff – a white serial killer. Judy Maas, who was chosen as one of the ceremonial witnesses, likened Canada to a war zone for aboriginal women.
Laurie Odjick's teenage daughter, Maisy, went missing with Shannon Alexander from a First Nations community in Quebec in 2008. She wants an inquiry and will raise it at the round table if she's given the chance to speak as one of Quebec's delegates.
"[The gathering] was very emotional," said Ms. Odjick, who will be at the round table as the family delegate for Quebec. "For the families going through this, this is where we gather our strength. We know what we're all going through."