A public inquiry into what's described as a national tragedy may not be the best way to address the issue of missing and slain aboriginal women, the Manitoba government says.
Instead, the Selinger government is working behind the scenes with the federal government and other provinces to conduct a more far-reaching examination into why so many aboriginal women have disappeared or have been slain, and why many of those cases remain unsolved.
"The abuse and exploitation of vulnerable women and girls in all its forms is nothing less than a national tragedy, and it must stop," Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said late Tuesday. "Our focus is to establish the best way to get the answers we all want so urgently. We are not ruling out any options to get those answers as quickly as possible."
The grand chiefs of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Southern Chiefs Organization and other aboriginal organizations have said they want a public inquiry into the issue. The call comes in the wake of Monday's arrest of Shawn Cameron Lamb. The 52-year-old career criminal is charged with three counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of 31-year-old mother of two Tanya Nepinak, Carolyn Sinclair, 25, and 18-year-old Lorna Blacksmith.
The Manitoba government said it has no plans to hold a public inquiry.
"We're not even discussing that at this time. The key thing is we don't want to get in the way of a criminal investigation," Justice Minister Andrew Swan said Tuesday. "Right now, that is our priority -- to try to get closure for the families that have been pained by this."
On Tuesday evening, nearly 200 people -- led by aboriginal singers and drummers -- marched from West Broadway to the Manitoba legislature to honour the memories of the three slain women. Some carried candles and signs. Some prayed and wept.
"Why, God, why?" yelled Lacita Blacksmith as she sat on the steps of the legislature. She clutched a picture of her sister, Lorna, whose body was found in a yard on Simcoe Street last Thursday.
Police believe she was slain in January.
"They are more than just statistics," said Chief Garrison Settee of Cross Lake First Nation, Blacksmith's home before she moved to Winnipeg.
"We will march for them today with pride. We will march for them today with power. We will march until something will be done on behalf of our missing aboriginal women."
Grace Ross travelled from Cross Lake to attend the memorial. She was Blacksmith's teacher in elementary school and remembered the teen as a friendly, kind girl who loved to laugh.
"She was a good girl. She was active and friendly. She was the kind of person who approached everyone, wanting to talk and make friends," Ross said.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak also addressed the sombre crowd.
"I'm standing here in solidarity with the Manitoba chiefs... calling for a public inquiry, a national public inquiry, into why do we have so many aboriginal women missing in this country," he said.
Taylor Peltier attended the memorial because she's afraid for herself and other aboriginal women living in Winnipeg.
"We shouldn't have to be scared to walk around the city. We should be able to feel safe in our community," Peltier said.
Earlier in the day, Eric Robinson noted there are about 100 missing and slain aboriginal women in Manitoba. Nationally, there are about 600.
"It is not a time to show anger," Robinson said. "This is a time to stand with these families that are in deep mourning. I don't think we should be politicizing this issue any more than it has."
The province is hesitant to call a public inquiry because of the length of time it would take to begin it. Before any inquiry could start, the police investigation and prosecution of Lamb would have to be completed and that could take several years.
Privately, the province points to the almost decade-long wait it took for the public inquiry to start into B.C. serial killer Robert Pickton. He was arrested in early 2002 and convicted in late 2007 of six counts of second-degree murder. The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his property. Inquiry commissioner Wally Opal is scheduled to submit his report on Oct. 31 -- more than 10 years after Pickton was arrested.
Premier Greg Selinger spoke privately with aboriginal leaders Tuesday.
Swan said the province's main focus at this stage is supporting police and their criminal investigation, and then looking at the best method for publicly addressing the issue without interfering with the prosecution of Lamb.
"I know the federal government shares our concern about the issues of murdered and missing women and the federal government is supportive as well," Swan said.
He declined to comment on the case against Lamb, particularly the issue of why he had been released from jail without being supervised as ordered by the sentencing judge.
On Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Lamb's arrest is an example why the his government's tough anti-crime policies are so vital.
Toews said the elimination of conditional sentences and stricter bail restrictions for serious offenders will make Canada safer.
"We don't believe that house arrest is sufficient in those circumstance," he said.
Toews also said it was premature to call a public inquiry without more information about the Lamb investigation being made known.