Rinelle Harper, the 16-year-old student who was brutally attacked last month and left for dead near the Assiniboine River, has added her voice to calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
The Garden Hill First Nation teen, who is a student at Winnipeg's Southeast Collegiate, received a standing ovation from the more than 3,000 chiefs and delegates at the Assembly of First Nations gathering in Winnipeg where they will elect a new national chief.
Harper said she was speaking publicly at the meeting to "end violence against young women."
She said she was "thankful for the thoughts and prayers from everyone" and said she wants to get back to school.
"I wish to continue on with my life and I am thankful I will be able to go back to school to see my friends and be with my family," she said.
"Some people who have visited with me have shared their stories of healing. I ask that everyone here remembers a few simple words: love, kindness, respect and forgiveness."
She ended her comments with a request.
"As a survivor I respectfully challenge you all to call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women," she said.
Violence against women paid 'lip service'
Therese Villeneuve, chair of the AFN's Women's council said she's been talking about the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women for at least a decade.
She said it was the first time in her memory the issue was front and centre at the national level.
"Things are happening and not good things," she said, when asked the reason. "Nobody takes it seriously until a [tragedy] happens, and then all of a sudden people wake up to the problem."
Villeneuve said even within the AFN, women have long been excluded from high level discussions on the issue.
"The women's council has not been part of the executive council," she said.
Villeneuve said that has been changing over the last couple of years and it's now having an impact.
"We were very excluded from the executive," she said. "We don't have voting power, but at least we are at the table and that's a big thing."
"[Former national chief] Shawn Atleo did invite us to the table and we were able to be equal," she said.
"And from then on, they started taking us seriously. I think before we were just in the background."
Villeneuve said she's passionate about the issue of missing and murdered women because when she was nine years old, her friend next door was murdered.
"I never forgot about her," she said. "And this morning when Rinelle was up there, I got really emotional because it just brought me back to my time when I lost my little friend."
Lawyer Joan Jack, who is from Berens River, Man., and is a former candidate for national chief, was blunt about why violence against women has been on the back burner until now.
She said sexism and chauvinism within the aboriginal community has been among the reasons the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women has received little more than lip service up till now.
"There wouldn't be 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women if we didn't have a problem in our community as well," she said. "It's a problem. It's a big problem."
Federal government rejects calls for national inquiry
Two of the candidates for national chief, Perry Bellegarde and Ghislain Picard, said they would push the federal government for a national inquiry, while Leon Jordain said enough research has been done and action must be led by the aboriginal community.
But Rinelle Harper's plea for a national inquiry was swiftly rejected late Tuesday by Justice Minister Peter MacKay.
MacKay said Ottawa is actively working on more ways to protect women.
He said stopping to hold an inquiry would impede the progress.
"What we're going to do is continue along the road of more action," he said.
Election of AFN national chief takes place tomorrow
The AFN conference began Tuesday in Winnipeg as First Nations leaders from across Canada elect a new national chief to the Assembly of First Nations.
Winnipeg police chief, Devon Clunis, and Premier Greg Selinger were both present at the ceremonies, which opened with a drum circle.
There will also be a discussion about child welfare, First Nations education and missing and murdered indigenous women in Winnipeg.
The election comes after former national Chief Shawn Atleo quit in May amid criticisms from chiefs that the AFN was getting too close with the Federal Government.
Bellegarde comes from Saskatchewan and Jourdain from Ontario. Picard is the current interim chief of the AFN.
Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said he is "not certain" he will even attend the event.
All three candidates have said the structure and vision of the AFN needs to change — something Nepinak tends to agree with.
He said the organization is losing touch and is struggling to stay relevant with indigenous people.
“I think if the AFN wants to be relevant on a going-forward basis, it's going to have to engage at the community level,” said Nepinak. “That's something it hasn't done in a very, very long time.”
Pimicikamak (Cross Lake) First Nation Chief Cathy Merrick said she plans to be present for the election, but doesn’t know yet which of the three candidates she will vote for.
“They talk about treaty and aboriginal rights, and we need a leader that will speak and be able to come forth and protect those rights.”