On the heels of last week’s national roundtable on missing and murdered indigenous women in Ottawa, both main opposition parties in the House of Commons are promising to make the issue a priority in the upcoming federal election.
NDP aboriginal affairs critic Niki Ashton and Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett told Yahoo Canada News they will be pushing for a national inquiry over the coming election campaign.
“Absolutely,” Ashton said. “There is real need for political leadership for this issue.”
The Conservative government has been resolute in its position against holding a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in December that “it isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.” He has called the issue a crime problem, and not a sociological one.
Aboriginal affairs minister Bernard Valcourt and Minister for the Status of Women Kellie Leitch held a separate press conference from the rest of the participants — including Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod and leaders from Canada’s national aboriginal organizations — at the national roundtable on Feb. 27.
The ministers highlighted an action plan the government introduced last fall, $5 million a year over five years, which critics say simply isn’t enough.
After the roundtable — where delegates agreed on a broad framework and to meet again in a year’s time — wrapped up, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde reminded reporters of a recent Angus Reid poll that showed three quarters of Canadians support holding a national inquiry.
That number seems to be a bolster for organizations and parties that have been pushing for an inquiry for years.
“What’s clear is that a growing number of Canadians know it’s important,” Ashton said.
Indigenous communities have been mobilizing over the issue for a long time, she added, and a “record number” of non-indigenous Canadians are showing up at vigils, signing petitions and calling for action from their federal representatives.
“This is also very much a regional issue as well,” she said. “In Manitoba, people’s worlds have been rocked by the discovery of Tina Fontaine. The fact that the remains of a young woman were found wrapped in plastic, floating on the Red River, shocked people to their core.”
The stories of Tina Fontaine, the Highway of Tears in B.C. and of Loretta Saunders, whose body was found on the side of the highway in New Brunswick, have mobilized people “in a way that you won’t get a sense of in Ottawa, or in Parliament,” Ashton said.
The Liberal Party’s Carolyn Bennett said in an email that the only way Canadians will get a national inquiry “supported by all of the premiers, Aboriginal leaders, the international community, civil society and the victims’ families is by changing the federal government.”
She added that “over the coming months Liberals will not only continue to call attention to this national disgrace, but will make addressing this epidemic of violence an election issue.”
The interim president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada agrees that things would be very different if everyone who wants an inquiry showed up at the polls on election day.
“I believe very strongly that if aboriginal people, if women, if all of our people, if all of those people who are being quoted as being supportive of a national inquiry get out and vote with their hearts…then absolutely there is going to be some significant changes,” Dawn Harvard said in an interview with Yahoo Canada News.
She noted that not only will pushing for a national inquiry be an election issue, “it absolutely has to be an election issue. The majority of Canadians believe that we do need a national inquiry and it should happen.”
A large and significant proportion of Canada’s indigenous population feels provincial, municipal and federal governments do not represent it, Harvard said. Over the coming months, NWAC will be holding workshops across the country to try and engage aboriginal people in the federal election, and get them to vote.
“The reality is that it is those…representatives who are making the decisions that are having an impact on our lives…[they are] the ones who are deciding on the legislation, on the policy, on one thing after another,” she said.
“And the missing and murdered being a prime example of the fact that we can no longer afford to stand back and let the rest of Canada decide for us who will be the leader, who will be making decisions,” Harvard continued.
“We need to get out and vote and make our voice heard.”