Families of missing and murdered indigenous women who are in Winnipeg for a national roundtable say they want answers in the deaths of their loved ones, while Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger says now is the time to act on the issue.
"Tragedies are still occurring. We do not want to wait for a national inquiry, we want to do things right now that will help families deal with tragedy," Selinger told reporters during a noon-hour break from the roundtable meeting on Thursday.
Selinger said his priorities include addressing issues of violence, developing programs to preserve language and culture, tackling human trafficking, improving ways to support families in reconciliation and healing, and making sure they're connected to support service networks.
He added that he wants to make sure the history of indigenous people is being taught in schools. The situation can only improve if everyone is involved, Selinger said.
"This is not just a story about indigenous women and girls, this is a story of how we treat each other as Canadians across the country," he said. "The issues benefit us all. This is part of the larger story of reconciliation we need to address as a country."
The roundtable began Wednesday with closed-door sessions for families only and is now into meetings with premiers, ministers, indigenous leaders and families of murdered and missing indigenous women.
In a 2014 report, the RCMP estimated there have been 1,181 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls in the country since 1980 — 164 are missing and 1,017 were victims of homicide.
Among those attending the roundtable are the mother and sister of Carol King, a Mi'kmaq woman from western Newfoundland who was slain in Herschel, Sask., on Aug. 6, 2011. Her killer has never been caught.
"It's been a struggle. It's been very stressful, especially when you don't have the help that you need," said her sister, Brenda King, who flew to the Winnipeg roundtable from Nova Scotia.
"When I knew something was wrong on Aug. 6, I called the police in Rosetown and I asked them to go and look for her because something was wrong, her phone was shut off. And they didn't go."
The family said they hope that talking more about Carol will increase the chances of her murder being solved.
"It's been devastating. I'd like to get answers. This is very hard," said their mother, Yvonne King. "Today I hope we get some answers, that's what I'm hoping for. Just some closure."
Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, underscored the need for improvements to how indigenous women are treated by the policing, corrections and child welfare services.
"Many of those institutions, when our women leave a First Nation and are looking for a better life and come into the cities, these are the structures that are discriminating against our women," she said.
"These are the structures that have the opportunity to create a better life, to create safety."
Lavell-Harvard also agreed that action cannot wait until an inquiry is completed in two years. She called on provincial and federal governments to immediately create plans and put budgets in place to support them.
Meeting comes days after homicide
The roundtable is taking place just days after another homicide of an aboriginal woman in Winnipeg.
Of the five homicides in Winnipeg so far in 2016, three have been aboriginal women. Marilyn Rose Munroe, 41, was the most recent victim; her body was found in a house on Pritchard Avenue on Monday.
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"Three of five murders this year [being aboriginal victims] shows we need to get on with it — work with indigenous organizations about safety programs in the community, to do the education required of all of us as citizens to be respectful of diversity and differences and understand the history of indigenous people," Selinger said.
"It's understanding that builds empathy and relationships that build empathy. I say the most important thing to do is keep talking together and working together … not to isolate the problem and say it's somebody else's problem."
Nahanni Fontaine, Manitoba's special adviser on aboriginal women's issues, believes there has been a shift in attitudes since the Liberals replaced the Conservatives as Canada's government. She's confident some solutions to the problem of missing and murdered women can be found.
Both she and federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett — who came through Winnipeg earlier this month as part of her pre-inquiry tour — have called Winnipeg ground zero in national awareness of missing and murdered indigenous women. The death of Tina Fontaine and the near-death of Rinelle Harper propelled the issue into a wider spotlight, Bennett said.
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Bennett's tour and acknowledgement of the problem are proof that Canada is on the cusp of finally dealing with the matter, Fontaine said.
"If there was ever an opportunity for change, it is absolutely right now," she said.
Meetings in Winnipeg with families of victims will be difficult, but an important way to find solutions, Fontaine added.
"In some respects [it can] retraumatize them. That's the nature of this issue. I often talk about family strength and resiliency and courage to constantly be called upon to share their journeys and stories, and they do it," she said, adding there are plenty of supports on hand for the families during the meetings