07/24/2012 02:55 EDT | Updated 09/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Premiers, aboriginal leaders seized with mitigating violence against women

OTTAWA - If Bernadette Smith could pull up a chair at Wednesday's meeting between Canada's premiers and aboriginal leaders, she would tell them about her missing sister — and chances are, the politicians would listen.

Violence against aboriginal women has surged to the top of the agenda for the premiers and the leaders of First Nations, Inuit and Metis groups gathering in Lunenburg, N.S. — and for that, Smith is grateful.

Talk and symbolic action, however, won't cut it.

Smith's sister, Claudette Osborne, disappeared off the streets of Winnipeg four years ago to the day — two weeks after giving birth to a daughter, and eight months after kicking her drug habit. She has never been found.

"When my sister went missing, it took them 10 days to put a media release out. They didn't really take it seriously, and from what I hear from other families, it's the same situation," Smith said.

The chiefs, the premiers, law enforcement and the federal government all know what to do about violence against aboriginal women, she added.

"We know what the problems are, and we need some more resources put in place."

First Nations researchers have estimated that there are more than 600 aboriginal women who have gone missing over the past two decades, and that problems of violence against aboriginal women are profound, on reserve and off.

The issue has been debated in aboriginal circles for years, but has taken on significant momentum since the arrest last month of Shawn Cameron Lamb, accused in a string of killings involving aboriginal women in Winnipeg.

Last week in Toronto, the issue became a rallying point for candidates competing for the post of national chief, and was the subject of much emotional discussion in the corridors of the annual general meeting of the Assembly of First Nations.

The chiefs passed an emergency resolution urging all levels of government to take action.

More than 1,300 chiefs and delegates at the meeting also signed a personal pledge to live violence-free and promote safety and security among aboriginal peoples.

Several speakers spoke passionately of the need to take action in their own communities as well, rather than rely on federal and provincial authorities — a call for men with domestic abuse issues to come forward, and a push towards holding a First Nations-led investigation.

Now, violence against women has taken its place alongside development of natural resources and education on the national agenda.

And not a moment too soon, said Sheila North Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

She said the Manitoba government has been receptive to serious action in the past, but is now resisting calls for a broader inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women as long as the Lamb case is before the courts.

"We're hitting a wall," she said.

The federal government has said in the past that existing programs are already dealing with missing and murdered women, including aboriginals.

On Tuesday, a Justice Department spokeswoman pointed to $35 million earmarked in recent years for improving law enforcement resources and helping victims.

But Ottawa has not responded positively to requests for a national inquiry or task force.

The provinces, however, have a self-interest in hearing out the plea for a more co-ordinated action, says Jean Crowder, the federal NDP critic for aboriginal affairs.

When women on reserves flee their homes for their own safety, they end up in provincial safe houses. When children need to be removed from their families, they often end up in provincial welfare systems.

And aboriginal women become especially vulnerable when they leave their reserves and head to the city for schooling or work, drawing on the social services provided by provincial governments in urban areas.

"The provinces are directly impacted by violence in aboriginal societies," she said. "They bear the brunt of it."

For Smith, progress towards reducing violence and vulnerability would start with improving housing on reserves so that women have a safe place to stay. She wants a system of mentors in cities to help naive aboriginal migrants when they first enter urban areas. She wants addiction centres, both in the cities and on reserves. She wants beefed-up police resources.

And importantly, she wants help for the men initiating violence.

"The women always get help, but the men don't," she said. "They need help."

But Smith is already taking matters into her own hands. After dealing with delays and lack of publicity around her own sister's disappearance, she's developed a tool kit for aboriginal families across Canada that shows them what steps they can take if a loved one goes missing.

Eight of the 10 premiers are expected to attend the two-and-a-half hour meeting, although the premiers of Quebec and New Brunswick likely won't be there. On the aboriginal side, the premiers will meet with the leaders of the Assembly of First Nations, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Metis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

Betty Ann Lavallee, national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, said she will again push the provinces on their refusal to recognize the off-reserve natives her group represents.

Lavallee said the roughly 800,000 status and non-status off-reserve natives in Canada have for years been pressing both the federal and provincial governments to accept responsibility for them.

She says their lack of action means that off-reserve aboriginals are shut out of a range of funding, education, women's and housing programs available to those who live on reserves.

"We're basically nobody's Indians," she said in advance of the meeting.

"The provinces don't have jurisdiction over us and the federal government says, 'No, you don't live on reserves, so we don't have jurisdiction over you.'"

Clement Chartier of the Metis National Council agreed, saying he intends to press the provincial leaders on including the Metis nation on major resource development initiatives in western Canada.

But he said the group, which represents as many as 400,000 people, faces the same challenge of being recognized by the federal and provincial governments, particularly when it comes to Indian residential schools and the exclusion of the Metis from the federal settlement agreement.

"So we're just left in this limbo while our cousins, the treaty Indian people who attended 30 miles away, have been dealt with," he said before Wednesday's meeting.

"It's a big critical issue that needs to be addressed."

— With files from Alison Auld in Halifax