The head of the Assembly of First Nations is imploring native men who have "lost their way" to help prevent the deaths and disappearances of aboriginal women – a tragic reality he says all Canadians must confront, no matter how uncomfortable.
Aboriginal men must address deep-seated issues stemming from the Indian Residential School system, including addiction and cycles of violence, National Chief Perry Bellegarde told The Globe and Mail on Monday.
"When they come out of that system, they're not healthy, they're not well, and they've lost their way," Mr. Bellegarde said, adding that men and their families need better access to wellness centres and treatment programs. "What is the role of men? They're supposed to be protectors, providers."
Mr. Bellegarde, who was elected in December, assumed the helm at a time when Ottawa has come under intense pressure to launch a national inquiry into Canada's more than 1,181 murdered and missing aboriginal women – a probe Prime Minister Stephen Harper has dismissed unnecessary.
"I think there has to be dialogue so it's in everybody's face," said Mr. Bellegarde, who supports an inquiry. "Don't just skirt around it. The truth may hurt, but let's deal with it."
Aboriginal leaders have long called for a national inquiry, but the chorus grew louder after Winnipeg was hit last year by two high-profile cases with stark similarities: Tina Fontaine, 15, was found dead in the Red River in August; Rinelle Harper, 16, was discovered nearly lifeless on a footpath alongside the Assiniboine River in November.
After it was revealed that one of the two co-accused in Ms. Harper's attack is aboriginal (the other is a minor and cannot be identified), public discussion was reignited about the role of native men in the deaths and disappearances of aboriginal women.
Ms. Harper's uncle said at the time that violence within the same race is not surprising, but added: "It's among us. It's the way we are these days." And federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt later said part of the problem lies with the "lack of respect for women and girls on reserves," drawing swift criticism in part because half of First Nations people do not live on a reserve.
Mr. Bellegarde said aboriginal men must get back to the seven sacred teachings – honesty, truth, respect, love, courage, humility and wisdom. "Put those things at the forefront because that will guide you in your life on how you deal with yourself, your spouse and your family," he said.
The National Chief, who addressed The Globe's editorial board, also said Canadians need to better understand the legacy of residential schools. About 150,000 children were forced to attend the schools throughout the 1900s. The last one closed outside Regina in 1996.
"People say, 'Why can't those Indians be like us? When is enough, enough?' Well, imagine your son, daughter and grandkids being taken away from you, when they're five or six years of age, and being put into a residential school system where everything about being that Indian kid is no good," he said. "You throw in the physical abuse, the sexual abuse, the mental abuse, and you're not going to be healthy coming out of that … That's where the intergenerational effects come in."
Given the Conservative government's refusal to launch a federal inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women, premiers and aboriginal organizations such as the AFN are turning their attention to a national roundtable on the issue in Ottawa on Feb. 27. Several federal ministers have been invited to participate in the event, which will focus on prevention, awareness, community safety, policing and the justice system. Victims' families will gather in the capital on Feb. 26, and some will be part of the AFN's roundtable delegation.
"That's part of their healing," Mr. Bellegarde said, "having input and sharing their stories."