A public inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered aboriginal women is vital, if you ask provincial and territorial leaders, opposition parties and aboriginal groups. The federal government, however, suggests it's a misguided approach.

With so much debate about a public inquiry, here's a closer look at how one could work and what it could reasonably hope to achieve.

What would an inquiry look like?

The goal of a public inquiry should be to identify the factors causing these deaths and disappearances, so that they can be addressed, argues the Native Women's Association of Canada.

In order to do that, as many as possible of the more than 1,000 documented cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women from the last 30 years should be explored, said Dawn Harvard, vice-president for the NWAC.

"In an ideal world I would say we should talk to all of the families, we should look at all of those women, because every one of those women was important and it was a tragic loss," she said. Families of the missing, police, child welfare authorities and others could all be called as potential witnesses, she said. Topics like sexism, racism and poverty would all be relevant to the discussion. 

Harvard wasn't prepared to comment on limits for how long the inquiry should take or how broad a time frame it might examine, saying that would still have to be discussed.

What would we learn that we don't already know?

"We need to see where we dropped the ball with these cases up until now," says Harvard.

'There should be a positive, collaborative, respectful response to what is a deep-rooted social issue.' - Marlene Brant Castellano, research co-director at the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People

She hopes an inquiry would identify instances in which indigenous women were treated differently by the authorities.

"It's that kind of thing that needs to come out and it's that kind of thing that will not come out if we don't have that legal clout to gain access to files, to essentially force people to come forward if they are subpoenaed and testify and discuss what happened in a number of these cases where it was obvious that our women were being treated differently."

What kinds of changes have past investigations prompted?

In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People presented a 4,000-page report that included 444 recommendations. Most of those recommendations were never put into practice, says Marlene Brant Castellano, the co-director of research for the commission.

"The results of the inquiry, the product of $50 million, was dismissed by the government in place in 1996-97, with the exception of a healing fund to deal with the trauma of residential schools. What happens with inquiries is that if they have no living, breathing, in-power, in-place champions, the inquiry gathers dust," she said.

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Laurie Odjick holds a sign with photo of her daughter Maisy, who went missing along with Shannon Alexander in 2008 at age 16. Odjick was taking part in a rally in Ottawa last October honouring the lives of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

However, she does believe an inquiry or other discussion around murdered and missing aboriginal women is necessary.

"There should be a positive, collaborative, respectful response to what is a deep-rooted social issue," she said.

Public inquiries work best when they expose cover-ups and failures by government, says Prof. Nelson Wiseman, director of the Canadian studies program at the University of Toronto. He cites the Gomery Inquiry into the federal sponsorship scandal or the Walkerton Commission into the tainted water supply of a community in Ontario as examples.

In the case of violence against aboriginal women, Wiseman believes an inquiry is unlikely to help.

"I don't think a public inquiry is going to contribute in and of itself to ameliorating or solving this problem. I think we know what the issues are," he said, mentioning poverty, lack of housing, violence and alcohol and drug use as contributing factors.

"What will the inquiry actually lead to? What action is going to change? Do I think the inquiry is going to tell us? I think we're going to get some pablum," he says.

Are there alternatives?

Something less cumbersome than a full public inquiry might be a better solution, suggests former Harper adviser Bruce Carson. He'd like to see the prime minister call an independent advisory panel, like it did on Canada's role in Afghanistan. In 2009, John Manley presented a report that examined four options for Canada's future role in the country and recommended that Canadian Forces remain in Afghanistan, as long as NATO provided additional support.

Carson argues that such a panel would have a more focused mandate and could be asked to report back in a shorter time frame

If federal officials are unwilling to launch a single, national public inquiry, Harvard says some in the aboriginal community have expressed interest in seeing each province and territory launch its own inquiry.

"If we have the support and we take the approach from a province-to-province basis, maybe the time has come that we need to start leading the charge," she said.

On Wednesday, aboriginal groups meeting with territorial and provincial premiers in Charlottetown said a roundtable with key federal ministers could be an important first step in moving the issue forward.

Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair went further, saying if the NDP win the next election, it would call a public inquiry within 100 days of taking office.