OTTAWA -- The federal government refused to say Thursday whether it has any inclination to call a national inquiry into the rate of violence against aboriginal women in Canada.
As the annual Sisters in Spirit vigils remembering slain and missing aboriginal women took place across the country Thursday, Ottawa responded to renewed calls for an inquiry with an expression of sympathy for the families and a list of things it said it has done for aboriginal women.
"Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the grieving families," said Kerry-Lynne Findlay, parliamentary secretary for justice, during question period.
"We have invested significant resources and law-enforcement tools needed to locate missing women while providing on-reserve, culturally responsive policing services. We are also supporting victim services in aboriginal communities to improve overall community safety."
Her statement was virtually identical to one given via email by Justice Minister Rob Nicholson's office when asked whether Ottawa would call an inquiry. A second request to answer the question about the inquiry was met with the response: "Statement stands."
Churchill NDP MP Niki Ashton called the response "callous."
"They give sympathies and direct people to a website," said Ashton. "That's just simply not enough. We're way beyond that point."
Aboriginal groups and the opposition are calling for a national inquiry, citing the fact young aboriginal women are more than five times as likely to die violently than non-aboriginal women, and are three times as likely to be victims of violence.
There were more than 160 candlelight vigils held across Canada Thursday, remembering more than 500 aboriginal women who have been slain or gone missing in Canada in the last four decades.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is pressuring Ottawa to call an inquiry with a postcard campaign to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. More than 4,000 cards have been mailed since the end of July.
The cards say statistics about the number of slain and missing aboriginal women stopped being collected in 2010 after Ottawa stopped funding the Sisters in Spirit project, which kept a database of the cases.
AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said the issue is critical enough to warrant a national inquiry.
"We want to call on the brightest minds to seek the solutions," Nepinak said.
Governments have called inquiries into either a specific event or scandal, such as the sponsorship program or the tainted-blood issue, or into public-policy matters such as the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples or the Romanow Commission on Canada's health-care system.
Ashton said a national inquiry could help determine the factors that make aboriginal women more susceptible to violence and which policies could help reduce the risk. "It's about getting to the bottom of the causes of marginalization and victimization," she said.
ABOUT 200 people huddled against the wind and rain on the grounds of the legislature Thursday night to commemorate missing and slain women in Manitoba. Many wore placards around their necks featuring pictures of victims.
Paul Bertrand wore one such sign as he carried a small pot of smoking sage, cedar, sweetgrass and tobacco that he had grown himself.
"It's to help cleanse and be the healing that we're working towards," he said.
The Sisters in Spirit vigil was one of about 160 ceremonies held across Canada Thursday in remembrance of slain and missing aboriginal women.
Bertrand said he knew one of the missing Manitoba women and he recently discovered that a distant ancestor of his disappeared 150 years ago.
"It happened a long time ago and it's still happening today," he said. "Maybe one of these missing women was the wife I was supposed to be with. Somehow, we're all affected by it, directly or indirectly."
Bertrand said it's important to show support for the victims because otherwise society gives its approval for a culture of violence to continue.
"As men, we need to take care of our women. Enough is enough," he said.
-- Geoff Kirbyson