In the spring, Prime Minister Stephen Harper transferred lead responsibility for the issue of Canada's murdered and missing aboriginal women to Kellie Leitch, the Status of Women Minister and a doctor who has treated battered native women and girls in the emergency room.
Much has happened since then. An aboriginal teen's death in Winnipeg has prompted renewed pleas for a federal inquiry, which the government has rebuffed. The premiers have since called on Ottawa to sit down at a national round table.
In the Harper government's most direct language yet, Dr. Leitch told The Globe this week she will attend the round table, which could happen as early as November. "This is something that has to be done at all levels of government," she said in an interview. "We all have a responsibility to step up."
The Conservatives are under immense public pressure to tackle what some have deemed an epidemic of national proportions, with the NDP on Friday forcing a surprise debate on Canada's more than 1,181 murdered and missing aboriginal women. Critics say the government's recently released $25-million five-year action plan is underfunded and doesn't address the systemic causes of violence against aboriginal women.
And for Dr. Leitch, spearheading the federal response appears to be an exercise in balance. On the one hand is her party's emphasis on law and order, with Mr. Harper recently saying the Winnipeg girl's death is foremost a crime, not part of a "sociological phenomenon." And on the other is what she heard during cross-country conversations with aboriginal families: a plea for prevention efforts to break cycles of violence.
"I agree with the Prime Minister, but I also think this action plan is informed by the most important people it affects, which are the people that were victims of these crimes," Dr. Leitch said.
Beginning in March, she travelled the country – from B.C. to the Prairies, Ontario and Nova Scotia – to meet with victims' families, including some she cold-called after her staff tracked down their phone numbers. She asked whether she could meet them in confidence, as she does with her patients, to discuss the government's strategy. By June, she had met with upward of 50 family members and "put pen to paper" on the action plan, which was released this week.
"The stories I heard were heart-wrenching," she said. "Whether it be Bernadette Smith, whose sister has been missing since 2008, or numerous others, [people] said to me, 'You know, we need to have prevention as a cornerstone of what we're doing going forward. We have to break this cycle of intergenerational violence.'"
Dr. Leitch said many of the meetings took place at native friendship centres, though she said she would have visited reserves if that's what the families preferred. "I grew up in Northern Canada, in Fort McMurray, Alberta, which is surrounded by several reserves," she said. "I had no hesitation in doing that."
She said her personal interest in the issue, stemming in part from her medical background, may be among the reasons Mr. Harper asked her to take over the lead from the justice and public safety ministers. She also said it's natural that Status of Women Canada assume the central role, since one of the department's core goals is tackling violence against women and girls.
While Justice Minister Peter MacKay has vaguely said Ottawa may be open to a "round table of sorts," Ms. Leitch told The Globe she would be "happy to participate" if the premiers and native leaders organize a roundtable.
Dr. Leitch could find herself at such an event as early as November. The Assembly of First Nations said provincial and territorial aboriginal affairs ministers, as well as several native organizations, are planning the next Aboriginal Affairs Working Group (AAWG), which may take place in November in the Northwest Territories. The hope is to hold a one-day roundtable right before or after the AAWG meeting, with follow-up gatherings down the road.
AFN interim national chief Ghislain Picard called Dr. Leitch's willingness to attend "good news," though he and other aboriginal leaders want Ottawa to send ministers from other departments, including Justice, Public Safety, Health and Aboriginal Affairs. Dr. Leitch, for her part, said she views the problem as requiring a "team effort" from all the relevant departments.
"This isn't the end of the process," she said, adding she's open to meeting with other victims' families. "This is not bone broken, fixed, never see that patient again. Like in my clinic, this is bone broken, fixed, see the child and make sure the child is getting back to full recovery."