Manitoba hosts summit on missing, slain aboriginal women

A national summit focusing on missing and murdered aboriginal women has brought families from across Canada to Winnipeg, but not everyone believes the meeting will help.
A national summit about missing and murdered aboriginal women has brought people from across Canada to Winnipeg this week. 1:50

A national summit that is focusing on missing and murdered aboriginal women has brought families from across Canada to Winnipeg, but not everyone believes the meeting will address the issue.

The Manitoba government is hosting the National Aboriginal Women's Summit, a meeting of provincial government ministers and national aboriginal groups, on Thursday and Friday.

Those attending the summit want to "come away with a good consensus and basis for a national framework," said Nahanni Fontaine, the province's special advisor on aboriginal women's issues.

The Assembly of First Nations is pushing for a national inquiry into the fate of hundreds of missing and slain women.

The assembly and other groups say an inquiry is needed to examine how police have handled missing persons cases, as well as the social and economic factors that make aboriginal women more prone to violence.

But the federal government has rejected the demand, and the provinces appear lukewarm.

Eric Robinson, Manitoba's minister of aboriginal affairs, has said an inquiry would be expensive and there may be better options.

Robinson said he invited three federal cabinet ministers to this week's meeting, but they are sending department officials instead.

Most of the two-day meeting will be held behind closed doors. The ministers will announce their findings when the meeting wraps up on Friday.

'Very little hope'

Among those who came to Winnipeg are three siblings of Evangeline Billy, who was found beaten and drowned in the Yukon River in Whitehorse in 2008.

Logan Blanchard, Billy's brother, said he and his two sisters travelled from Yukon to Winnipeg to support other families who have lost loved ones.

Alicia Murphy was convicted of second-degree murder in Billy's death, but Blanchard said more must be done to protect aboriginal women.

"We have very little hope for the system," he said. "They haven't really given us that much information on our sister."

Toni Blanchard, one of Billy's sisters, said meetings like the one in Winnipeg help heal the wounds and bring families "a step closer to closure."

"But it seems like every step closer we get, we always end up backing up two steps," she said.

Too political?

This week's summit is the third such meeting to be held. The first took place in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2007, and the second was held in the Northwest Territories a year later.

Some who attended this year's summit said they are concerned such meetings have become too political.

Last month, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs was upset that it and other regional groups were excluded from the national summit.

The groups are now hosting a shadow summit, across the street from the official summit venue, that is open to anyone who wants to attend.

The political infighting has some, like the family members of Winnipeg homicide victim Tanya Nepinak, confused and frustrated that it's taking energy away from the real issues.

"Everyone has to work together," said Gail Nepinak, Tanya's sister. "They can't be doing their own separate meetings."

With files from The Canadian Press