OTTAWA — Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose says she would like to participate in a national roundtable on missing and murdered aboriginal women being planned for next year.
“I hope so. I’ve asked to be included. I think that I have a lot that I can offer to that discussion,” Ambrose said in a telephone interview from Winnipeg on Monday.
“I think there is a huge opportunity for us to come together at that roundtable to talk about making sure we’ve got the right programs on First Nations,” said Ambrose, who is making family violence a major priority of her time as health minister.
A one-day roundtable on missing and murdered aboriginal women involving provincial and territorial premiers, aboriginal groups and the federal government is being planned for February in Ottawa.
It is being viewed largely as a compromise — or, to more optimistic advocates, as a first step — in light of the Conservative government’s refusal to hold a national inquiry into the issue.
Invitations have yet to be issued, but Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch has confirmed her plans to attend and now Ambrose joins Justice Minister Peter MacKay and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt in expressing openness to the idea.
Ambrose said while there is an important role for police and justice officials to play when it comes to dealing with the perpetrators of violence against aboriginal women, she sees a role for the public health agency in tackling prevention.
“The majority of this violence is happening and starting in the home,” said Ambrose, who was promoting a new Public Health Agency of Canada website to raise awareness about family violence and how to deal with it.
Statistics Canada estimates the rate of intimate partner violence against aboriginal women are more than twice that of other women, with nearly 60 per cent of those reporting spousal abuse also reporting physical injury, compared to 41 per cent of non-aboriginal victims of spousal abuse.
Ambrose acknowledged the impact of the residential school system on these rates of family violence in the aboriginal community.
“When you have a generation of children who have been displaced and lost their culture, lost their language, and you see that in any country, in any community or ethnic group where this kind of issue happens, you see the same kind of traumatic impact on children,” Ambrose said.
She said research also shows the impact of early childhood trauma to be wide-ranging, including addiction, homelessness and crime, which is why it ties into the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
“Family violence is a really important place to start to look at what we can do not only to prevent, but intervene early so that we can get to those kids,” Ambrose said.
Claudette Dumont-Smith, executive director of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said she was “happy to hear” Ambrose would like to participate.
Dumont-Smith said much negotiating remains before the agenda is set, but she thinks it would be a good idea to include prevention in the discussion.
“We want to make the most out of it, because we’re never going to get another day like that again,” Dumont-Smith said.
NDP aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder noted the initiative did not come from the Conservative government, but the meeting of premiers in Charlottetown this summer.
“I think it’s really important that the federal government is at the table. I think it’s unfortunate that it has to be driven by the provinces, territories and First Nations,” Crowder said Monday.
Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal aboriginal affairs critic, welcomed the news from Ambrose.
“It’s been clear that violence against women is a very important issue to this minister and it would be fantastic if she could continue the leadership by agreeing to attend the roundtable, that we still know will not in any way replace the need for a national public inquiry,” Bennett said Monday.