MMIW roundtable hears clear message from families seeking immediate change

As the national roundtable into missing and murdered indigenous women concluded in Winnipeg on Friday, the message from families of missing and murdered indigenous women has been "loud and clear," Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says.

Large number of indigenous children in government care is a major concern

A memorial sits in the centre of a room hosting the national roundtable on missing and murdered indigenous women in Winnipeg. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

As the national roundtable into missing and murdered indigenous women concluded in Winnipeg on Friday, the message from families has been "loud and clear," Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says.

Changes are needed to how aboriginal people access mental health and addictions services, she said.

Significant improvement is also needed in education — both for indigenous people and in schools where the history and culture of First Nations are taught — and in policing, the criminal justice system and child welfare, Bennett said.

The fact that so many indigenous children are in government care today — more than at the height of the residential schools era — was one of the issues that came up many times, she added.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says families don't want to wait for an inquiry to be over before action is taken. (CBC)
"All of these things are something we heard very, very clearly yesterday," Bennett said, explaining that Thursday's roundtable was about government leaders and national aboriginal organizations listening to the concerns of families.

Friday's agenda focused on talking and finding solutions. Federal, provincial, territorial and indigenous leaders have agreed to co-operate and support a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

Bennett said the commitment means the inquiry will be able to delve into provincial areas such as child welfare and policing.

"Without the formal co-operation of the provinces and territories, we could only launch a federal public inquiry that would look into federal issues in federal jurisdiction," she said earlier in the day.

"We want to make sure we have their full support in designing a national public inquiry, because we don't believe that a federal public inquiry can do the job."

The governments also committed in broad terms to improving social and economic conditions for indigenous people.

In terms of child welfare, Bennett praised the move by some provinces, including Manitoba, to adopt a customary-care approach, which allows foster children to be placed with relatives or families in the same community and cared for according to traditional customs, rather than be sent away to non-aboriginal families.

That same kind of commitment to change is needed from all provinces and territories to make substantive changes to the other issues, Bennett said, noting those regional governments have jurisdiction on policing and treatment programs.

Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said the meeting was historic because all governments have committed to addressing key issues.

Details of the national inquiry, such as the scope, the cost and who will lead it have yet to be worked out.

Bennett joins vigil for slain Winnipeg woman

Bennett, who was with a crowd that marched in Winnipeg last night as part of a vigil for slain aboriginal woman Marilyn Rose Munroe, said changes to address the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women must be undertaken even before a national inquiry is complete.

"[There are] certain things the families … expect us to get on with it now, because this is still happening. People don't want to wait until the end of the commission to get going on things," she said.

Bennett is "very keen" to develop a plan to address housing, education and other changes necessary in child welfare and policing that don't have to wait until the end of an inquiry.

Carolyn Bennett joins Sue Caribou at Thursday's vigil for Marilyn Rose Munroe in Winnipeg. Caribou's niece Tanya Nepinak disappeared in September 2011 after leaving her Winnipeg home to walk to a pizza restaurant a few blocks away. (Courtesy Cheryl James)