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People take part in the March For Missing and Murdered Women on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday Feb 14, 2013.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Harper government's 11th-hour decision to support the creation of a committee to investigate the disappearance and murders of hundreds of aboriginal women is a step in the right direction, but it should not rule out the possibility of a full public inquiry. One group has documented the disappearances and deaths of almost 600 women and girls, and half of the murders remain unsolved. It's a horrific national tragedy that deserves Ottawa's full attention.

The committee, once formed, will have a lot to look at. It took a report this week from an American human-rights group to persuade Ottawa that it needs to take action. That report, from Human Rights Watch, alleges that the RCMP in northern British Columbia has failed to properly investigate the disappearance and apparent murders of women and girls in their jurisdiction. The report says the lack of investigation has led to a "dysfunctional relationship" between the Mounties and native women, some of whom say they have been physically and sexually assaulted in police custody. The RCMP says it is taking the allegations seriously.

As well, the Native Women's Association of Canada has documented those hundreds of deaths and disappearances, more than half of which have occurred since 2000. And then there was the terrible case of Robert Pickton, the serial killer guilty of murdering six women and thought to have killed as many as 49. A public inquiry found that Pickton was able to operate with impunity for years because of a police bias against the sex workers he preyed on, some of whom were native women.

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Groups like the Native Women's Association of Canada have been doing their best to find answers to what could, if properly investigated, prove to be a problem of epidemic proportions. They have held public forums and meetings with police in an effort to stop an ongoing tragedy that is ruining the lives of so many families. Compelling evidence warranting a response from Ottawa has been accumulating for some time; it took pressure from an international organization to finally prompt the government to acknowledge the situation.

Will it be enough? The committee will spend a year travelling the country looking into violence against native women and recommend solutions to Parliament. At the very least, it will bring a broader public awareness to an issue that has been ignored too long. But if along the way it uncovers repeated examples of police indifference to cases involving missing and murdered native women, then the government should be prepared to move to a full public inquiry. The native families of Canada deserve no less.

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