A lawyer who worked on the Donald Marshall Jr. inquiry says an inquiry into the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada is a daunting job, but could examine issues a criminal investigation can't cover.

Bruce Wildsmith now represents the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs.

He said it would be a challenge to properly frame an inquiry and give it a focus. Canada is still in throes of reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal cultures, he said, an such an inquiry could help. 

"Despite the complexity, despite the cost that might be involved, it is a process that I would suggest is worth undertaking," he said Tuesday. 

Wildsmith was council to the Union of Nova Scotia Indians during the Donald Marshall inquiry.

The Mi'kmaq man was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1971. A royal commission in 1990 determined systemic racism had led to his imprisonment.

Death of Loretta Saunders

The death of Loretta Saunders revived calls for a public inquiry. The 26-year-old Inuk woman was studying murdered and missing aboriginal women at Saint Mary's University.

Loretta Saunders

Loretta Saunders was studying the issue of murdered or missing aboriginal women when she was killed. (Gofundme)

"I don't think it would be feasible to do the 700 or 800 individual cases," Wildsmith said. "You could look at it from a broader social perspective: that is to ask why so many of them are aboriginal."

Wildsmith said that approach could see if there is a difference in the way police and the justice system treat missing or murdered aboriginal people compared to non-aboriginal people. 

Alternatively, he said an inquiry could select representative cases and study them deeply. 

He said an inquiry can compel people to testify without a subpoena. 

Harper opposed to inquiry

Several groups and opposition parties are asking the federal government to call for an inquiry after Saunders's death.

So far, the Harper government has said an inquiry is not needed.

"I remain very skeptical of commissions of inquiry generally. My experience has been they almost always run way over time, way over budget, and often the recommendations prove to be of limited utility," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in May.

Wildsmith said he couldn't speak to the political reluctance. "It could be a bit of a wild beast to unfurl, but I think it's up to a properly framed mandate to the commission and up to the commissioners that may be involved to keep it within the bounds of reason," he said. 

 He compared it to the Charbonneau inquiry into corruption in Quebec's construction industry. 

"The sense that it's a big issue shouldn't stop governments from going forward and looking at why this is happening. It is a large and fundamental issue, a gross over-representation of aboriginal women as victims."