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Ottawa accused of inaction on native victims

Manitoba demands new approach

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OTTAWA -- The federal government can no longer be a no-show on the issue of slain and missing aboriginal women, Eric Robinson, Manitoba's acting minister of aboriginal and northern affairs, said Monday.Robinson was in Ottawa as a panelist at an Amnesty International symposium on the subject. He said Manitoba is making its own plans because the problem clearly is big in the province. But he said until Ottawa steps forward with a comprehensive national approach, the many provincial and grassroots efforts will not be enough to make a difference.

"It's nice to issue a press release on the occasion of the vigils but we clearly need some action taken by the federal government," Robinson said.

More than 500 aboriginal women have been slain or gone missing in Canada in the last 40 years. Their stories are documented by the Sisters in Spirit initiative of the Native Women's Association of Canada.

The funding for the project expires next year but Minister of State for the Status of Women Helena Guergis implied Monday she is prepared to keep it alive.

"We are supporting Sisters in Spirit," Guergis said in the House of Commons, responding to a question from Manitoba Liberal MP Anita Neville.

The government will continue to work with NWAC on the initiative, Guergis added.

Robinson said he has asked for the subject to be on the agenda later this month when provincial aboriginal affairs ministers meet with federal minister Chuck Strahl. He has not yet been told whether it will happen.

Neville said she isn't sure Guergis's actions demonstrate that she understands or cares about the issue.

She said at the symposium in Ottawa, Guergis breezed in for a "20-minute cameo appearance" rather than sitting in for the panel discussion that included presentations from police officers and women's groups.

Neville wants a national public inquiry.

A 2006 report from the National Aboriginal Health Organization points out that if non-aboriginal women went missing or were slain at the same rate aboriginal women have been, 17,500 women would have been victims between 1995 and 2005. That means 875 women each year on average, a number the NAHO says would have generated a national reaction.

Neville said the goal would be to work at solving these cases as well as getting to the root of why so many aboriginal women are going missing or being slain so often and why so many of the cases remain unsolved.

According to the Sisters in Spirit database, 150 of the 340 documented homicide cases remain unsolved.

Neville said the task force in Manitoba -- which is looking at 30 unsolved cases -- is a good start.

Manitoba also established an action group to co-ordinate government and community work on the issue, to help direct Manitoba's policies to aid vulnerable and exploited women.

Robinson said it is critical is for government to be involved beyond just funding it. He said too often the government pays but isn't directly involved in the work. That can hamper the impact of the work and limit the effect it has on government action, he added.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2009 A6

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