09/04/2013 08:17 EDT | Updated 11/04/2013 05:12 EST

Ottawa's research on trafficking of aboriginal women panned

A Canadian government initiative to research family involvement in the trafficking of aboriginal women and girls has prompted accusations the government is blaming the victims.

Public Safety Canada recently issued a request for proposals for research into the trafficking of aboriginal women and girls for sexual exploitation, with a specific focus on the possible involvement of relatives and criminal gangs.

But some in the aboriginal community say they find the premise of the research offensive, accusing the federal Conservative government of seeking ways to blame the families of the women who are victimized.

"I was just, like, flabbergasted. Angry, frustrated that this is the way they look at it," said Candy Volk, whose 18-year-old niece, Hillary Wilson, was found dead in a field near Winnipeg in 2009.

"This is what Harper gives us: let's blame the victim, let's not look at the issue of the missing and murdered women … we have to blame someone."

According to Public Safety Canada's request for proposals, the research project will focus in part on "describing the extent and situations in which family members are involved in victimizing their relatives."

The research will also examine "the mechanisms by which human trafficking and domestic violence are related to one another, particularly in the context of family trafficking" and look at "how gangs and criminal organizations are involved in trafficking."

Bids for the project were accepted until Wednesday afternoon.

"It's very cleverly designed to bring about results that will be blaming First Nations for murdered and missing and traded indigenous women," said Pam Palmater, chair of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto.

In a statement, a federal government spokesperson told CBC News that previous research has indicated that family members are sometimes involved in the trafficking of aboriginal women and girls.

Winnipeg-area Conservative MP Joy Smith said the research would serve as a starting point, as victims of trafficking would share their experiences, and focusing on family connections could reveal other root causes of human trafficking.

"If a family member has an addiction — let's say it's a mom or a dad — that's when you see the family connection to human trafficking," Smith said.

But Palmater said there are a number of systemic reasons why aboriginal women and girls are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, including poverty.

"The purposeful chronic underfunding they have in communities that force people to live 20 to a home [with] not enough food to eat … creates situations of hopelessness which results in all of these situations," she said.