Canada's premiers are backing a call by aboriginal leaders to launch a national public inquiry into the case of missing or murdered aboriginal women, CBC News has learned.
"The premiers at the table agreed to support the call of the Native Women's Association of Canada for a national public inquiry on this very, very important issue," Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said.
A delegation of First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders met with Canada's premiers this afternoon ahead of a two-day summit of the Council of the Federation in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. that begins Thursday.
Michèle Audette, the president of the NWA, called the backing by the premiers a "major" step forward.
Audette told CBC News on Tuesday, ahead of the meeting, that she would call on the premiers and territorial leaders to support the group's push for a national public inquiry into why so many aboriginal women are murdered or go missing.
"It is not a native women's issue, or an aboriginal issue. For us, it's a Canadian issue and everybody is affected by that," Audette told CBC News on Tuesday.
The Native Women's Association of Canada has said they have documented over 600 cases where aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing between 2005 and 2010 — a number the RCMP has told CBC News it can't confirm.
Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, welcomed the support for a national public inquiry saying "this is an important expression of support."
Absent premiers support decision
Absent from the meeting, however, were Alberta Premier Alison Redford and Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale.
The fact that some premiers were not in attendance doesn't mean they are not in support of a national public inquiry, Wynne said. The Ontario Premier and Chair of the Council of the Federation said that she would be speaking with the premiers who were not in attendance and "work to get their support on that position."
She cautioned not to jump to conclusions ahead of knowing the facts.
"I ask that we not read too much into absences at the table," Wynne said.
Audette told CBC News earlier on Wednesday she was not happy to see that premiers were absent from the meeting.
"It's so obvious we are not a priority," Audette said adding that they could have sent a representative on their behalf, Audette said.
Contacted by CBC News after the meeting, Redford said Alberta takes the issue of violence against aboriginal women and girls "very seriously."
"I support the decision taken by premiers today and look forward to continuing to work with them to ensure we're supporting Aboriginal and Métis women, nation-wide," Redford told CBC News in a written statement.
Earlier a spokesperson for Redford told CBC News that the premier could not be at the meeting with aboriginal leaders because she is in Toronto for a "crucial meeting" with insurance companies.
"Alberta is still recovering from the floods and homeowners are seeking answers about what comes next… She had the meeting to urge insurers to continue working directly with their clients and provide clear information to homeowners," a spokesperson for the Alberta premier said.
Dunderdale's office told CBC News the premier's schedule did not permit her to attend today's meeting. Her office later said her absence was due to a family emergency, and that the premier was "supportive of the outcome of today's meeting."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has resisted calls for a national inquiry, saying in May he is "skeptical" of the effectiveness of commissions of inquiry and that "it is time to pass to action."
A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs said in an email to CBC News Wednesday the government has passed legislation to extend matrimonial rights to aboriginal women living on reserve, including access to emergency protection orders, and made investments to improve the justice system.
"This includes creating a new National Centre for Missing Persons, improving law enforcement databases and developing community safety plans specifically designed for aboriginal communities," said Andrea Richer in the email.
6 key priorities
Wynne said the premiers also endorsed a report by aboriginal leaders calling for continued action on shared priorities.
"We have endorsed the report from the Aboriginal Affairs Working Group and we are supporting those initiatives, including a discussion on disaster relief," Wynne said.
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger told CBC News Network's Power & Politics that the national disaster mitigation strategy entails "specific projects that prevent people from being pushed out of their homes and businesses in every jurisdiction ."
The report focuses on six key priorities: education, economic development, ending violence against indigenous women and girls, housing, and the need for a national disaster mitigation strategy.
Betty Ann Lavallée, the national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, said today was "one of the best" premiers meetings she has attended.
Lavallée pressed for better living conditions for aboriginals living off-reserve.
Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami – the group representing Canada's Inuit – pushed for better infrastructure in the North.
Audla called on the federal government to work with the provinces and aboriginal leaders towards "a common cause."
Métis National Council president Clément Chartier thanked the premiers of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia for "their reaffirmation of working with the Métis Nation and the federal government to, this year, conclude a national Métis economic development strategy."
Chartier said it's an initiative they have been working on for the past three years.
Included in the delegation of aboriginal leaders were the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council, the Native Women's Association of Canada, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
The premiers will meet on Thursday to discuss skills and training, infrastructure and a Canadian energy strategy.
On Friday, the premiers will talk about bullying and cyberbullying, as well as progress on health-care innovation.
A closing news conference is planned for Friday afternoon.