Canada's provincial premiers and native leaders are supporting a call for a national roundtable on the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women, saying they are willing to compromise on their demand for a public inquiry in an effort to get Ottawa involved in the discussion.
The premiers, in Charlottetown this week for the Council of the Federation summit, renewed their calls for a public inquiry into the issue, but increased the pressure on Stephen Harper and his government by supporting First Nations' leaders calls for the national dialogue.
"We are open-minded as premiers and [First Nations] leaders for compromise," Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz, the host of the summit, said Wednesday after meeting for several hours with aboriginal leaders. "If the federal government is more interested in a roundtable with some of their federal ministers, I think that is a step in the right direction."
The Prime Minister has repeatedly dismissed calls for a national inquiry, which have grown louder since the violent death of Manitoba teen Tina Fontaine, whose body was pulled from Winnipeg's Red River this month.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay would not comment on the meeting. In a statement that did not address the call for a roundtable, he called Tina's death a "horrible and violent crime against a completely innocent person." He said that now is the time "to take action, not to continue to study the issue."
However, aboriginal leaders say Mr. MacKay agreed in June during a meeting with them to support the "creation of a roundtable" between First Nations and "associated federal departments." Asked about the meeting, a spokeswoman for Mr. MacKay said there was nothing to add to the minister's statement.
For Michèle Audette, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, the premiers' support for a national roundtable is crucial. The issue had not originally been on the agenda for Wednesday's meeting – but Tina's death put it there, she said.
Ms. Audette says that having a "dialogue" with the federal government is important. "Right now it's broken," she says.
Ms. Audette and her colleagues will be sending an invitation to federal ministers as early as next week, emphasizing the support of the provincial premiers. The federal government, she says, can work with them in building the terms of reference. "We all have the same objective: more protection, safety, dignity, justice, but it's the way we get there that are not the same."
The premiers have also committed to work on a socio-economic action for aboriginal women that will look at education, jobs, poverty and housing. The plan is expected to take shape as part of the 4th National Aboriginal Women's Summit in Cape Breton in October.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, who is also the provincial Aboriginal Affairs Minister, said Wednesday that the aim of the action plan is to make sure "we put in place a system that will attack the root causes that are challenging aboriginal communities across the country."
Last week Mr. Harper drew criticism for asserting the Fontaine death is first and foremost a crime, not part of a wider "sociological phenomenon."
As the premiers and First Nations leaders were meeting in Prince Edward Island, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said in a news conference in Ottawa that Mr. Harper's approach to Canada's murdered and missing aboriginal women and a recent high-profile murder case was "callous" and "cold." He vowed that the NDP would launch an inquiry into the issue within 100 days of being elected.
Mr. Mulcair's remarks come more than a week after Tina's body was found by police divers. He said the teen "gives us one more name and face" to add to the growing list of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada – a list the RCMP recently said has expanded to nearly 1,200 names since 1980.
At a separate news conference Wednesday, Liberal intergovernmental affairs critic Stéphane Dion said Mr. Harper should "listen this time and do what's right."
For Mr. Ghiz, a roundtable would get an important dialogue going. "We believe that it's better to compromise and open up the first line of discussion than it is to sit back and wait for the next election," he said, suggesting the only way for a public inquiry is for a change in government. The next federal election is a year away.