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Premiers, aboriginal leaders change tack

Michele Audette, left, from the Native Women
Michele Audette, left, from the Native Women's Association of Canada, chats with Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger at a meeting of premiers and aboriginal leaders in Charlottetown on Wednesday, August 27, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
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By Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

CHARLOTTETOWN - Canada's premiers and native leaders are inviting the prime minister to take part in a roundtable discussion on murdered and missing aboriginal women, with one native leader saying Stephen Harper's decision to reject calls for a public inquiry shows disrespect.

The new if somewhat vague commitment came Wednesday at the conclusion of a meeting in Charlottetown between most of the premiers and five aboriginal leaders.

The group's plan for a roundtable discussion did not come with any details of when it would happen or how it would work. It is also unclear if Ottawa is interested.

P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz, the host of the meeting, said while the proposal is in its preliminary stages, it is important to compromise and have some form of dialogue.

"If we know we're not going to get somewhere, there's no point in us putting our head in the sand and saying, 'OK, we're done with it,' " Ghiz said.

But he said one thing is certain: federal participation is essential.

"We believe that any dialogue, any collaboration on this subject is extremely important," Ghiz said, adding that the roundtable idea is a good first step before an inquiry is held.

The native leaders and premiers also renewed their demand for a federal inquiry, a request the group first made more than a year ago.

Ghislain Picard, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the progress made by the group was marred by the lack of federal participation.

He said it was ironic that 150 years after politicians from the Maritimes and Canadian provinces gathered in Charlottetown to discuss Confederation, the federal government wasn't at the table when the First Nations came to town.

"I certainly view that as disrespectful in terms of the issues before us," Picard told a news conference.

"The same question has been at the table for the past few years: Where is the federal government? Where is the other partner? Every issue on the table calls for input from the government of Canada."

Justice Minister Peter MacKay's office issued a statement that didn't directly address the call for a roundtable but reiterated the federal government's position on the push for an inquiry.

"What is clear is that continued action and sustained effort and investment is required," the statement said.

"Now is the time to take action, not to continue to study the issue."

Ghiz, the longest-serving premier at the conference, described the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women as a "black eye" for Canada.

Michele Audette, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said she was pleased with the meeting, adding that it's important for the federal government to realize that the group's call for a national inquiry has not gone away.

"The support is still there — even more so," said Audette, who plans to seek the Liberal nomination for the Quebec riding of Manicouagan before the federal election next year.

Prior to the meeting, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said he still supported the idea of a inquiry, but he also said a federal-provincial roundtable would be a good way to spur some action.

"I think what we can achieve as premiers and as a country, if the federal government would engage, is an event and an exchange of best practices that's informed by action," Wall said.

Wall said the provinces have already set up something similar for health-care innovation.

He said there have been 29 studies and reports on aboriginal issues since 1996 that have produced more than 500 recommendations and the forum could look at what action has been taken on those ideas.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said an inquiry of some sort was needed and she agreed that federal involvement was a must.

"Having a public inquiry is a good way of getting at some of the issues that are of huge concern to all of us," she said.

Ghiz went further, saying before the meeting that Harper is obligated under the Constitution to respond.

"If ... the prime minister is not going to change his mind, the only other way to get (an inquiry) is to have a new prime minister."

The demand for federal action comes less than two weeks after the body of a 15-year-old aboriginal girl was found in the Red River in Winnipeg.

Native leaders have said Tina Fontaine's death, considered a homicide by police, has highlighted the need for an inquiry.

In May, the RCMP released a study of 1,181 cases involving aboriginal women since 1980. The study found aboriginal women made up 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population, but accounted for 16 per cent of female homicides and 11.3 per cent of missing women.

The federal government has said it has taken action to deal with the problem, including setting up a national DNA missing person's index and introducing 30 justice and safety initiatives aimed at helping native women.

Harper has said most cases like Fontaine's should be handled by the police, adding that it would be a mistake to consider the crime part of a "sociological phenomenon.''

In Ottawa, Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair said Wednesday an NDP government would launch a full public inquiry within 100 days of taking office after consulting with women and First Nations about its parameters.

Mulcair said only an inquiry can get at the systemic problems reflected in the murder rate among aboriginal women.

The federal Liberals have also promised to establish an inquiry.

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