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Violence against aboriginal women on the rise, native protesters say

OTTAWA - A group collecting evidence about missing aboriginal women says the number of victims is on the rise.

In a protest walk from Vancouver to Ottawa this summer, the group — called Walk 4 Justice — says it has documented 37 more missing or murdered women just since June 21, most of them aboriginal.

Wrapping up their trek across the country on Monday, the group congregated on Parliament Hill to say violence against women is escalating, especially against aboriginals.

At a noisy protest that also included several New Democrat MPs, they and other aboriginal groups asked Ottawa yet again for a national inquiry and task force into the missing-women issue.

They say their request is taking on increasing urgency now that a British Columbia inquiry into missing women is stumbling, with some native groups boycotting the hearings because they say they lack the resources to prepare.

Walk 4 Justice says Ottawa's attempts to deal with violence against missing aboriginal women in the past few years have amounted to very little.

A year ago, Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose announced $10 million in a five-year plan to help police and victims'-services organizations deal with missing people.

But native groups say the money does not target aboriginal people specifically, and is quickly eaten up by a wide variety of police and safety needs.

"Nobody knows what they're doing with that money," Beverley Jacobs, past president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, told a news conference.

"It's not going to do anything to help these families."

Walk 4 Justice, a B.C.-based volunteer group, started collecting details of missing or murdered women in 2008. They now have a database of almost 4,200 women, the large majority of whom are aboriginal — even though aboriginal people comprise just three per cent of the country's population.

They say they've added 37 more names to that list in the last three months alone, as families and friends emailed the protesters during their march to Ottawa.

"This is telling us that the violence against women is escalating in this country and it's being socially accepted. We need to stop these acts of violence," said Gladys Radek, who co-founded the Walk 4 Justice group in 2008 after her niece disappeared without a trace from the so-called Highway of Tears near Prince Rupert, B.C.

Ambrose has already dismissed the idea of a national inquiry that would examine aboriginal women victims of violence. She has said the federal government has heard the cry and reacted accordingly — a sentiment reiterated by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews on Monday.

"The Government is committed to ensuring that all women in Canada, including aboriginal women, are safe and secure regardless of the community in which they live," Julie Carmichael, spokeswoman for Toews, said in an email.

"Aboriginal women are particularly vulnerable to violence and can face challenges in accessing the justice system, which should be protecting them," she said.

Walk 4 Justice and other native groups want a public inquiry for the voices of families to be heard, the funding of aboriginal wellness centres, and improved public-safety initiatives for aboriginal women.

"There has to be answers for these families," said Jacobs. "It's devastating to have to go through that kind of trauma on a daily basis, when you're not getting answers and no one seems to care."

Statistics Canada reported in 2009 that 13 per cent of aboriginal women over the age of 15 self-reported being a victim of violence during the 12 months leading up to the survey.

Nearly two-thirds of those victims were between 15 and 34 years old.

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