WINNIPEG — Premiers have long lobbied the federal government to act on missing and murdered indigenous women.
Now the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada says it is time for them to back up their call for action with some money of their own.
Dawn Lavell-Harvard said the roundtable on missing and murdered indigenous women taking place in Winnipeg is a chance for provinces to commit to help vulnerable women rather than wait until a national inquiry on the issue has wrapped up.
“We want to see the provinces and the federal government coming forward with action plans and budgets to back up those action plans,” she said Thursday.
“We cannot afford to wait two years for the end of the inquiry when we know many of the things we need to have happening. We need to start taking action now.”
Hundreds of family members, indigenous leaders and the country’s top policy makers have gathered for the meeting.
People sat around a large table covered with candles and photos of some of Canada’s roughly 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women. Some wept and hugged while volunteers walked through the room with tissues.
Lavell-Harvard said provinces need to look at how their child-welfare systems, policing practices and corrections facilities affect indigenous women.
“When our women leave a First Nation looking for a better life, coming into the cities, these are the structures that are discriminating against our women,” she said.
“These are the structures that have the opportunity to create safety. In the past, they have been integral in putting our women into unsafe situations.”
National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations said premiers drafting their budgets can do their part to improve education, affordable housing, detox and wellness centres.
But he said there needs to be national co-ordination on actions aimed at ending violence.
“This is a tragedy that really has to end,” he said.
The roundtable experience was bittersweet for those whose loved ones make up Canada’s missing and murdered women.
Some compared the experience to ripping open a wound.
Bernadette Smith, whose sister Claudette Osborne disappeared without a trace in 2008, said it’s vital for law-makers to hear from those left to grieve.
“It’s extremely important for myself and others to have this opportunity with our ministers and our premiers to have our voices heard and for them to really feel our pain and connect to who our loved ones were — really embedding themselves in the stories,” she said.
“It’s one thing to see the name. It’s another thing to hear the story and meet the families.”
Just days after an indigenous woman was found dead in a Winnipeg home, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said he agrees that provinces shouldn’t wait for the inquiry to do what they can.
Manitoba wants to support indigenous families who have lost loved ones and that should be the goal across Canada, he said.
“We have to erase those boundaries and find ways to keep all of our citizens safe,” Selinger said. “It doesn’t matter what your background is. You should be able to walk in the streets and feel safe.”
The roundtable wraps up late Friday.