Federal cabinet ministers say they learned more about the specific safety concerns of indigenous women in northern Ontario — including reports that women have disappeared on ships on Lake Superior — during consultation meetings in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Wednesday.
The consultations are taking place across the country to help shape a national public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.
CBC News first reported on research that First Nations women were being sold into the sex trade on U.S. ships in Lake Superior in 2013.
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Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said that during Wednesday's meetings more than one family told her about losing a relative on a ship.
"Like we'd heard during Idle No More, they [indigenous women] went to the ships, then they disappeared," Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said.
The families were requesting that the inquiry have the authority to delve into cross-border concerns, she said.
The meeting in Thunder Bay is the first time cabinet ministers have held consultations outside of Ottawa and the first time they've heard from women who have personally survived a brush with death at the hands of another, said Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu.
"We learned the importance of listening to voices of people who are not just a family member of someone who is missing or murdered, but who have had a near miss themselves in terms of extreme violence that they survived," Hajdu said.
Some family members are concerned that after the long wait for an inquiry, the Liberals may now be moving too quickly. People who wanted to participate in the meetings in Thunder Bay got only a week's notice.
"It's very rushed, we're only given three minutes to talk, but everyone is going over their three minutes and they're saying what they need to say," said Sharon Johnson, whose sister Sandra Johnson was slain in 1992. Her killing remains unsolved.
Mishkeegogamang First Nation Chief Connie Gray-McKay also worried about the hastily organized meetings, particularly because one of her community members, Charnelle Masakeyash, is currently missing.
"I think it's long overdue to have an inquiry," Gray-McKay said. "I'm a bit concerned about the pace of this meeting. A lot of wounds have been reopened for a lot of people who are sitting in the meeting … it's very fresh in our minds as we continue to search for the missing girl from our community."
Bennett said she's aware people are feeling rushed, but she's also heard of the need to take action before more indigenous women die or disappear.
"There's this balance between getting it right with a proper pre-inquiry consultation, but getting on with the commission," she said.
Bennett said that ideally commissioners for the inquiry will be identified by National Aboriginal Day in June. Unlike the consultations, she said, the inquiry itself will be completely independent of government.
Johnson said that since the Liberals were elected, she noticed a "big change" in the way the government is listening to families, with cabinet ministers willing to hear the story of her sister and others.
"It's my hope that they're going to take this with them and carry it in their hearts when they go on to the next phase," Johnson said.