Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett reiterated her government's commitment to renewing Canada's relationship with its indigenous people during a speech to First Nations on Thursday.
"This government shares your passion and commitment to a renewed relationship. We all together have both an exhilarating and daunting job ahead," Bennett said in closing remarks to a group of chiefs and First Nations delegates after three days of meetings organized by the Assembly of First Nations in Gatineau, Que.
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Bernadette Smith, whose sister Claudette Osborne has been missing since 2008, expressed concerns earlier in the day about the minister speaking with other groups before meeting with the families.
Bennett confirmed she will be meeting with the families of missing and murdered indigenous women in Ottawa on Friday "as a first step" toward the launch of a national inquiry in 2016.
"We'll meet with the families from this region, with the goal of designing the inquiry and the process — and then we will go out and meet with the families in all of your regions."
Bennett said she will consult not just with the victims' families but also with the provinces and territories, as well as national aboriginal organizations.
"The inquiry will seek recommendations on concrete actions that governments, police services and civil society can take to address and prevent this violence," Bennett said. "My federal colleagues and I will need your help to make sure we get it right."
Bennett added that leadership means "asking not telling."
"It means that we know the solutions are with you and that our job is to actively listen and to harvest those solutions," she said.
Bennett also confirmed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be meeting with national aboriginal organizations next Wednesday, a day after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is to present its final report in Ottawa.
Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of the Native Women's Association, addressed the chiefs meeting earlier Thursday.
She spoke about the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, as well as the government's announcement confirming the process to launch an inquiry is underway.
Lavell-Harvard said she would like to see a national inquiry address racism within the ranks of the RCMP.
Her comments followed a surprising admission Wednesday by RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, who conceded before the assembly of chiefs that there are racists inside his police force.
Paulson's remarks came after Grand Chief Doug Kelly, leader of the Sto:lo Tribal Council in British Columbia, confronted the top Mountie publicly, urging him to address racism within his force.
In an interview airing on CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Kelly said he never expected Canada's top cop to be so frank.
"I almost fell out of my chair," Kelly said.
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde told the chiefs that Paulson's admission was "a powerful statement" and "a very public commitment to reconciliation and to addressing racism wherever it may live in the RCMP force."
'This government gets it'
In his closing remarks, Bellegarde called the three-day assembly "historic."
While Bellegarde refrained from personal attacks and never once mentioned the former prime minister by name, he drew comparisons between Stephen Harper's Conservatives and the new Liberal government under Trudeau.
Trudeau addressed the chiefs on Tuesday, when he laid out his top 5 priorities for a renewed relationship with Canada's indigenous people.
'This issue is high on the radar and we're going to keep it high on the radar.'
- Perry Bellegarde said of an inquiry into missing, murdered indigenous women
"The prime minister joined us here a few days ago to acknowledge that our constitutionally protected rights are not only legal obligations but a sacred obligation."
Bellegarde said what he heard from Trudeau and his ministers this week gave him cause for hope that the relationship between Ottawa and First Nations will be "less adversarial" going forward.
"No more will this federal government spend $106 million fighting our rights," he said. "No more will this federal government waste $1 billion over five years on funding that should have went to First Nations but lapsed. And no more will there be unilateral changes."
Trudeau said his government would also look to repeal bills passed "unilaterally" by the Conservatives, with Bennett saying Thursday First Nations want the Liberals to rescind the First Nations Financial Transparency Act.
Bellegarde said what resonated with him most was the government's promise to lift the two-per-cent funding cap on First Nations programs — something he also urged Harper to do.
"This government gets it," Bellegarde said.
The national chief said he was encouraged to see this government move forward with a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.
"This issue is high on the radar and we're going to keep it high on the radar," Bellegarde said in a veiled reference to an answer Harper gave CBC News chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge in an interview one year ago.
"It isn't really high on our radar," Harper said last December, when asked if he would consider launching some sort of investigation into the 1,200 documented cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Bellegarde also noted that the new government vowed to implementing all 94 recommendations included in the TRC report, something the Conservatives did not commit to.
"We feel stronger and hopeful today because Canada has committed itself to fully implementing the calls to action starting with the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People."
Bellegarde was elected AFN chief a year ago after his predecessor Shawn Atleo resigned amid protests from chiefs who thought he'd grown too close to Harper's Conservatives.
"Your AFN is back," said Bellegarde in his closing remarks. "It's going to be strong, united, relevant, responsible and respectful."