PC Indigenous relations minister 'doesn't understand' MMIW, NDP's Nahanni Fontaine says

Manitoba's NDP provincial critic on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls said on Friday that Eileen Clarke, minister of Indigenous and Municipal Relations, "just doesn't understand" the issue. Nahanni Fontaine said she also offered to help the minister with the file.

Fontaine says province should have strategy: 'We're at this very historical moment across Canada'

The NDP provincial critic for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls accused the PC minister responsible for the issue of not understanding it on Friday. The minister said in the Legislature she is still meeting with groups and individuals. (CBC)

The NDP provincial critic for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls called out the Progressive Conservative minister responsible for the issue on Friday, saying in an interview, "she just doesn't understand the issue."  

It comes during a week where Nahanni Fontaine has raised multiple questions about the issue during Question Period.

On Friday, she questioned why there was no mention of Indigenous women or girls, or of explicit support for an upcoming national inquiry, in the mandate letters for the ministers of families, status of women, justice or Indigenous and municipal relations.
Nahanni Fontaine has raised questions related to missing and murdered indigenous women and girls multiple times during the first week of sitting for the new PC government in Manitoba. (CBC)

"I'm actually quite shocked when there's no recognition of Manitoba's most marginalized and oppressed people." Fontaine said.

"It's actually shocking."

On Wednesday she asked if the government would formalize legal mechanisms for the inquiry, about the continuation of certain program funding, and questioned if the PCs would replace her former position as a special advisor on Indigenous women's issues under the NDP government.

The minister responsible for Indigenous and municipal relations, Eileen Clarke, responded saying she is still meeting with people and organizations.
PC Minister of Indigenous and Municipal Relations Eileen Clarke said in the Legislature this week the province is working with other levels of governments on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. (CBC)

On Friday in the Legislature Clarke said, "I'm eager to meet many more as we look to solve the ongoing issues that we face."

Clarke also met the families of missing Manitoba women Jennifer Catcheway and Claudette Osborne.

"Truthfully, this is a really hard issue to understand," said Fontaine, "Respectfully and gently, I understand and can tell already just by the way she was talking with families that she just doesn't understand the issue at this point." 

Fontaine said she offered to help Clarke get up to speed on her new portfolio on Wednesday, including liaising with families or even giving names of people who could do her old job. 

'Crash course' offered to new minister

"I'm more than willing to sit down and giver her a crash course on this issue," said Fontaine, who added she has not yet received a response on that offer.

Bernadette Smith, Claudette Osborne's sister, was one of the family members that met Clarke on Friday. Osborne disappeared in July 2008.  
Bernadette Smith, sister of Claudette Osborne, says she is disappointed with the new Progressive Conservative government's handling of the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls so far. (CBC)

So far, she said she is not impressed with the new government's handle of the missing and murdered women's issue.

"It is really disappointing to our families, because we think that this is kind of ground zero for missing and murdered Indigenous women," said Smith

"I kind of feel like we're taking a huge step back in terms of supporting families and helping women feel safe in Manitoba."

During the election campaign, Premier Brian Pallister said he supported calls for a national inquiry.  

There was no direct mention of it in his government's throne speech on Monday, although he did refer to the importance of having meaningful consultation with Indigenous leaders.

National inquiry structure could come soon

The issue could come to the fore quickly, with at least one federal Liberal cabinet minister suggesting more information about the national inquiry's structure could come in the next few weeks.

"Will Manitoba be ready to participate in that?" asked Fontaine.

Indigenous activist and University of Winnipeg professor Leah Gazan described the new government as "short-sighted" for not including references to Indigenous women and girls in its throne speech or mandate letters.  

Gazan says even greater attention needs to be paid to the issue compared to the previous government. To her, that would include broader investments in issues such as housing and food security.  

"The fact that Indigenous women and girls experience so much violence today is ia direct result of centuries of neglect and violations against Indigenous women.  And when you ignore the problem it gets worse," she said.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson is giving the new provincial government more time before passing judgement.

"I've had conversations with the premier and I've had conversations with the Indigenous and municipal affairs minister," she said. "And so far they seem willing to learn from our community and about our community."

North Wilson said gaps existed in the previous government's approach, and while she hopes the current one creates a similar advisor role, she does not necessarily expect it to take the same shape.

"Of course it's a different government and they have different ways that they want to do things and they're also looking at everything to see what's working and what's not working. And I totally understand that," she said.

A spokesperson for the province said in an email to CBC "Minister Clarke is committed to fostering positive relationships with Indigenous communities and their leaders on social and economic issues and looks forward to continued discussions."

Fontaine said, at the end of the day, her priority is families and the larger issue.

She said she accepts Clarke is new to the file. 

"But the bottom line is, is that there should already be a strategy in place because we're at this very historical moment across Canada."

With files from Alana Cole