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Dozens sleep outside Manitoba legislature to press for missing women inquiry

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Dozens of people prepare to sleep outside Manitoba Legislature to press for missing women inquiry in Winnipeg, Thursday, September 4, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

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Dozens of people prepare to sleep outside Manitoba Legislature to press for missing women inquiry in Winnipeg, Thursday, September 4, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

WINNIPEG - The death of a 15-year-old girl has prompted dozens of people to camp in the shadow of Manitoba's legislature for days, calling for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

A group set up tents across the street from the legislature almost two weeks ago, following the discovery of Tina Fontaine's body wrapped in a bag in the Red River. The number of tents has continued to grow, as has the resolve and optimism of many protesters who hope this tragedy can be a turning point.

Kylo Prince, who has been at the camp for days, said the abuse of aboriginal women is a continuation of the "genocide" of native people in Canada and has to stop. The families of missing and murdered women need closure and Canada has to deal with the underlying issues that contribute to these tragedies, he said.

Prince said protesters are celebrating because the federal Conservative government has said it is willing to participate in a roundtable discussion about missing and murdered aboriginal women.

"For a man like Stephen Harper to say he might have been wrong, that's a huge victory. That's what we've been praying for," Prince said.

"If I had no hope, I wouldn't be standing here. I would be sitting in an alley, slamming some whisky with a needle in my arm and a crack pipe hanging out of my lips. But no, there is hope. We will conquer the darkness, but with light. We can't fight it with anger or hatred."

The death of Fontaine, who had run away from foster care and was missing for 10 days before her body was discovered, reignited calls across the country for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

An RCMP report released in May estimated almost 1,200 aboriginal women have gone missing or been murdered in the past three decades. Although aboriginal women make up 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population, they account for 16 per cent of female homicides and 11.3 per cent of missing women.

Canada's premiers, who have called on the federal government to hold an inquiry, discussed the issue with aboriginal leaders at a meeting last week and proposed a roundtable as a compromise. While the Conservative government has steadfastly refused calls for an inquiry, it has said it would participate in a roundtable.

That's a small victory for Jennifer Spence. The mother of six, at the camp with her 17-month-old daughter, said she is still disturbed that Harper said Fontaine's death should be treated as a crime rather than a sociological problem.

"Are we really under a government that's on the ball about what society's issues are? You can't have crime without a society," said Spence, a social work student at the University of Manitoba. "We have (opened) the ears and eyes of the country ... We have to acknowledge that these issues exist."

Fontaine's death last month was the last straw, Spence said. The teen deserved more than to be found dead in the Red River and so do other aboriginal women, she said.

Spence said her 17-month-old daughter, who she called "my light," needs to grow up feeling safe.

"She has to grow up to be 18," she said.

The camp has subsisted through donations of food, water and wood, which have been dropped off daily. Although they have not been pressured by the provincial government or by police, Spence said the campers plan to pack up on Saturday.

"We plan to march our flags out of here in victory," she said.

"It's time for every single level of government to step up now and start to take these stories and ... learn about what needs to change, what people are encountering when they report their sisters missing."

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