CHARLOTTETOWN - Spurned by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in their bid for a public inquiry into missing and murdered native women, the country’s premiers are looking at other ways to tackle the crisis.
“Part of the problem is just the sheer numbers we’re talking about here,” Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said Wednesday.
“For example, in Saskatchewan today there are 31 missing people — 17 of them are aboriginal women.
“That’s how important this issue is — 50 per cent of the missing people in Saskatchewan are aboriginal women and they only . . . account for about 7 per cent of the population,” he said.
In all, the RCMP estimates some 1,017 aboriginal women have been murdered since 1980.
Premier Kathleen Wynne said that, like other provinces and territories, Ontario wants Harper to strike a public inquiry.
But the prime minister has said, “We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon,” which means the premiers must seize the reins.
“Whether it’s in economic development, whether it’s in education, whether it is in living conditions, I think there are things that we as provinces can agree need to happen in the immediate term,” said Wynne at a meeting between provincial and territorial leaders and aboriginal officials.
“We will continue to support the aboriginal leaders’ call for a public inquiry, but I agree that there are things that we can do as provinces,” she said.
“We can find ways to co-ordinate our actions on education, on economic development, on living conditions.”
While that could mean a national roundtable on the issue, Wall said First Nations deserve better.
“I don’t think a roundtable where we talk again about it as we have since 1996, where nothing happens, is helpful to anybody,” the Saskatchewan premier said.
Claudette Dumont-Smith of the Native Women’s Association of Canada said a roundtable would at least start a dialogue to start dealing the problems plaguing aboriginal peoples.
“There’s a systemic crisis right now,” said Dumont-Smith, adding natives may be forced to sue Ottawa.
“If Harper says no to everything, what are our options?”
Ghislan Picard of the Assembly of First Nations said “immediate action” is required.
“We’ve had a sad reminder a few weeks ago with the death of Tina Fontaine,” he said, referring the murder of a 15-year-old Manitoban.
Picard expressed astonishment at Harper’s stance.
“He decided to isolate himself from the rest of the world, really, on the need for a national inquiry,” he said.
Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz was more blunt.
“It is the federal government’s responsibility. No one should be sitting back and allowing them to abdicate their responsibility when it comes to the First Nations of this country,” said Ghiz, reminding Harper there is a federal election next year.
“If there is to be one (inquiry) and the prime minister is not going to change his mind, the only other way to get one is to have a new prime minister.”
In Ottawa, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said his party, if elected to government, would within 100 days launch a national inquiry into the cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Mulcair said native leaders, premiers and others have urged full-scale hearings on what he called “a national shame” and “a tragedy” and Harper is wrong to reject the idea.
The prime minister is just refusing to see reality when he says a history of 1,200 missing or murdered aboriginal women is not a sociological phenomenon, Mulcair said at a news conference.
“Mr. Harper has an ideological set of blinkers that simply stop him from seeing anything that he hasn’t already decided.”