By RACHEL AIELLO
The Hill Times (Ottawa)
Aboriginal leaders proposed a national rountable to discuss missing and murdered aboriginal women to Justice Minister Peter MacKay more than two months ago and the minister was warm to the idea, they say.
The Council of the Federation announced its support for a First Nations and federal government roundtable last week after a much-anticipated meeting between national aboriginal organizations and Canada’s premiers that came as renewed calls for a national public inquiry on missing and murdered aboriginal women dominated headlines.
But the idea shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Mr. MacKay (Central Nova, N.S.) as he was the first to hear the pitch in a meeting on June 11 with the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), a political territorial organization that represents 49 First Nations communities in northern Ontario.
The meeting was the first of its kind: the NWAC had never met with Mr. MacKay before and the main topic of discussion was missing and murdered indigenous women.
NAN deputy grand chief Alvin Fiddler said the organizations had a good sense of what the government’s position on a national inquiry would be because of a previous meeting with Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.) on the file. They knew an alternative would have to be presented if they were going to find a way to work together before the next election, he told The Hill Times.
NWAC president Michèle Audette said that Mr. MacKay “politely” listened to their request for an inquiry but when the roundtable proposition was discussed, he seemed more interested.
The roundtable proposal would have First Nations groups meet with all of the Cabinet ministers that have a file directly related to the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women, including Mr. MacKay, Ms. Leitch, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt (Madawaska—Restigouche, N.B), Health Minister Rona Ambrose (Edmonton-Spruce Grove, Alta) and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney (Levis—Bellechasse, Que.).
“We proposed this idea of a roundtable as an alternative and asked him, is this something he would be prepared to support? And he said yes,” said Mr. Fiddler.
When asked about Mr. Fiddler comments Mr. MacKay’s office sent The Hill Times a previous statement reiterating the government’s stance that it’s time to take action.
“What we don’t need, is yet another study on top of the some 40 studies and reports that have already been done, that made specific recommendations which are being pursued, to delay ongoing action…Our Government continues to take direct action to address the tragedy that is missing and murdered aboriginal women,” the statement said.
Mr. Fiddler said that in further conversation with Minister Leitch on Aug. 27, following the premiers announcing their support for a roundtable, the minister indicated that a roundtable was something she was open to. Mr. Fiddler is hoping that they can come to an understanding on how the roundtable will work.
In an email response to The Hill Times regarding Mr. Fiddler’s comments, Ms. Leitch said she did not explicitly say she would support a national roundtable but said she told the deputy grand chief that she is “committed to taking action.”
“I would be willing to meet with him and to hear his thoughts on the issue,” she said.
Ms. Audette, who’s seeking the Liberal nomination in the Quebec riding of Manicouagan, is hoping a roundtable would work to repair the broken dialogue between the federal government and aboriginal organizations. She’s never had the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) so “why not now?”
“Just because they’re saying no to a national inquiry doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the programs and services that exist for aboriginal people and look at whether it’s working or not,” she said in an interview. “We need to sit down and find a proactive initiative… there are more women disappearing, more women dying.”
Mr. Fiddler organized the June meeting after Mr. MacKay promised to meet with First Nations women in May. The meeting was agreed upon following an interaction the justice minister and fellow Conservative MP Joy Smith (Kildonan—St. Paul, M.B.) had with the families of missing and murdered women and members of the NAN’s women’s council who were demonstrating on the steps of Parliament Hill on May 12, the day UN rapporteur James Anaya released his report on the situation of indigenous peoples in Canada.
Mr. MacKay and Ms. Smith happened to be on the steps at the same time, for a photo opportunity, where a life jacket-donning Mr. MacKay was confronted by the women asking for his help. He said he would be willing to sit down and talk about the issue of missing and murdered women.
When the meeting in Mr. MacKay’s office was scheduled, it was arranged symbolically to be held on the six-year anniversary of Mr. Harper’s apology to First Nations for residential schools, said Mr. Fiddler.
He invited Ms. Audette to join NAN because of the lobbying she had been doing on the issue. Ms. Audette said she left the meeting feeling optimistic.
“There’s momentum now to bring everyone on board with this initiative,” she said.
Following the meeting, Mr. Fiddler knew that in order for the new strategy to gain traction he would need the support of all First Nations leadership. On July 16 at the Assembly of First Nation’s (AFN) annual general assembly in Halifax, he tabled the recommendation and it received unanimous endorsement.
A copy of the documents obtained by The Hill Times detailing the resolutions passed during the annual meeting included mention of NAN and NWAC’s June meeting with Mr. MacKay.
“Minister MacKay agreed to support the creation of a roundtable where first nation organizations and associated federal departments would be brought together to discuss the findings of the RCMP report and solutions to the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women,” it reads.
The AFN’s resolution, however, made sure to clarify that the creation of a roundtable is just part of the framework for developing a national dialogue, and that this roundtable can only be meaningful if it culminates in a national inquiry.
“Even though the Prime Minister has totally closed his mind and thinks this is only a law-and-order problem, surely his Aboriginal Affairs and Justice Minister could agree to the national roundtable, asked by Premiers and Aboriginal leaders, to discuss the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls,” said Green Party leader Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands, B.C.) in a statement last week.
Ms. May’s remarks echo the chorus of support for a national inquiry by the federal opposition leaders. The premiers also renewed their call in addition to endorsing a “socio-economic action plan” to be discussed at the annual national aboriginal women’s summit in Nova Scotia in November.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair (Outremont, Que.) said that if the NDP is elected, he would call an inquiry within the first 100 days of his term after consulting First Nations on the best way forward.
“The brutal murder of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine gave us one more name and face to add to this growing list. As the country mourns for Tina and her family, Canadians are united in their desire for action,” he said at an Aug. 27 press conference in Ottawa.
Liberal MP Stephane Dion (Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, Que.) said the Liberals would also support calling an inquiry but was not clear on the timing.
Gladys Radek, activist and founder of the Walk4Justice initiative, which raises awareness about missing and murdered aboriginal women, thinks that a roundtable is an “OK” first step, as long as family members are included in the conversation.
She said that for the families she’s hearing from daily, it is clear that it’s coming up on an election year and she hopes that accountability will follow the promises for action.
“We do plan on fighting for a national public inquiry. It is not because we’re angry; it’s because it is what’s needed. It’s more for the families. It seems every month a new case is sweeping the nation,” she said in an interview. “How many times does this have to happen?”
NWAC said they plan to send a formal letter to Mr. Harper and the appropriate ministers by the end of next week highlighting the support the roundtable option has been getting, and asking to further discuss what they can work on together.
The challenge is ensuring the roundtable is a credible process, she said.
“Most of the families and the leadership have always said an inquiry, that’s always been our demand. But in light of the government’s position to not have an inquiry, a roundtable would at least be a beginning,” said Mr. Fiddler
“I believe they will respond really fast. They say they’re really pro-active and they want to work on action, and this is an action,” said Ms. Audette.