OTTAWA - The Canadian government's steadfast refusal to launch a national inquiry into missing aboriginal women and girls has stirred controversy in election year, pitting Ottawa against indigenous groups.
A 2014 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police identified 1,181 murdered or missing aboriginal women dating back to 1952. Of these, 120 homicides and 105 missing cases remain unsolved.
In most cases, the perpetrators were known to the victims.
Eighty-nine per cent of suspects were male, 35 years old on average, and in 63 per cent of the cases had consumed drugs or alcohol prior to the attacks.
The federal government views the disproportionate number of deaths and disappearances as resulting from domestic violence.
Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said these tragedies are not due to a sociological phenomenon but rather are crimes that should be investigated by police.
But aboriginal groups say the trend is rooted in poverty, discrimination and poor education that plagues many indigenous communities.
They do not accept that jailing more aboriginal men - who are already over-represented in Canada's prisons - will solve the problem.
And they now have the support of opposition parties, which vowed to appoint an inquiry if either wins the October 19 ballot.
Harper said in the House of Commons on Thursday: "Now is the time for action, not for more study."
He touted several measures taken to address the issue, including his government's crackdown on violent crimes, funding for women's shelters and the creation of dedicated federal police squads to investigate the disappearance or killing of aboriginal women.
He also cited the granting of matrimonial property rights for aboriginal women living on reserves.
But New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair said the government's refusal to consider holding a national inquiry smacks of "racism."
Roundtable seeks solutions
After repeated demands for a national inquiry were rebuffed, aboriginal groups organised a one-day "national roundtable" to hammer out a strategy for making indigenous communities safer.
The Friday meeting was attended by government representatives from Canada's 13 provinces and territories, aboriginal associations, families of victims and two federal ministers.
Delegates agreed on a framework for prevention and awareness, policing and community safety initiatives.
But they failed to come together on the key demand for a full inquiry.
Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde told a press conference afterwards: "We're still pushing for a national inquiry."
"It's a Canadian issue," he said, citing polling indicating that three quarters of Canadians want an inquiry.
"If he (Harper) doesn't do something about it, then we need a new government," Marion Horne of the Native Women's Association of Canada told public broadcaster CBC.
A report released on the eve of the meeting noted that there have been 58 studies of the problem over the past two decades.
But most of their 700 recommendations - including the need for better transportation in remote communities to stop hitchhiking, and better relations between police and tribes - have been largely ignored or their success has been hard to gauge.
In some cases, the government has cut funding to initiatives.
Aboriginals account for less than five per cent of Canada's population, or about 1.4 million, according to the last survey, in 2011.
Their leaders and activists have been calling for an inquiry into the missing and murdered for more than a decade, since dozens of prostitutes went missing in Vancouver's seedy Downtown Eastside and were later determined to have been victims of a serial killer.
They are demanding a concerted and comprehensive effort by the feds, provincial governments and Canada's 600 tribes to tackle the problem.
They point to the meta-study by the Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Indigenous Women that says a national inquiry would "consolidate and update existing knowledge about the causes of violence against indigenous women."
The group adds that federal intervention would "comprehensively evaluate the adequacy of existing initiatives and programs and help Canadians and policymakers understand why there has been so much resistance to action to address this issue."