By Julia Wong
HALIFAX – Calls are growing in Halifax for the government to initiate a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal men and women, this in the wake of news that first degree murders charges have been laid in the Loretta Saunders’ case.
Lynn Johnston, the vice president of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association, is still reeling from news of Saunders’ death, which came Wednesday when police found the university student’s body in a median on a New Brunswick highway.
“We’re just really shocked and [it happened] right in our back door,” she said.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada cites statistics that aboriginal women make up 10 per cent of female homicides despite the fact that they only make up 3 per cent of the female population.
Johnston said an inquiry is critical.
“There has to be more information brought forward because people probably don’t realize how many aboriginal people are missing,” she said.
“A lot of people and their families have been left with unanswered questions. With this new outcry, maybe they will get some answers and not be left alone to reel with their sorrow.”
Johnston said that an inquiry is an opportunity to raise more awareness about the vulnerability of aboriginal women in Canada.
Sheri Lecker, executive director of Adsum House, said that the organization often deals with vulnerable and at-risk women and that an inquiry could shed light on the issue.
“Unfortunately it’s something we have experience with. We worry sometimes when we don’t see people we expect to see around. Sometimes their situations do make it to the news. Sometimes we see them afterward,” she said.
“There has to be answers. There has to be an inquiry. We have to understand why this continues to happen. We have to know what has happened to the daughters and mothers who are missing and murdered.”
Other local organizations, such as the South House, are calling on Prime Minister Harper to take more swift action.
“We need to come up with a national strategy,” said outreach coordinator Jade Ashburn.
“Canada, the Harper administration needs to stand up and say, ‘We take this seriously’ and ‘Aboriginal women are not disposable’. We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
One Dalhousie law student is taking matters into her own hands, literally.
Emilie Coyle is organizing the red envelope campaign, a letter writing campaign directed at Premier Stephen McNeil.
“What we’re asking is the new premier of our province add his name to the other premiers in Canada who are urging the federal government to begin a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women,” Coyle said.
The campaign encourages people to write letters in support of an inquiry and send them to the premier in a red envelope starting March 8, which is also International Women’s Day.
“What happened to Loretta Saunders is devastating. I would say what happened to hundreds and hundreds of women in this country is devastating,” she said.
Global News asked the provincial justice department whether it would support a public inquiry but a spokesperson said that it’s premature to discuss the matter while a police investigation is underway in Saunders’ death.
In a statement to Global News, Minister of Status of Women Kellie Leith shot down calls for an inquiry, instead saying, “Our government has taken concrete action to deal with this tragic issue of murdered and missing aboriginal women. In fact, in economic action plan 2014, we have invested an additional $25 million in order to deal with this tragic issue. We have taken action and we will continue to do so.”