03/04/2014 04:57 EST | Updated 05/04/2014 05:59 EDT

Native group hopes vigil in Ottawa for Loretta Saunders prompts inquiry

OTTAWA - A native group says it hopes a vigil planned Wednesday in Ottawa for a young Inuit woman found slain on the side of a New Brunswick highway will prompt the federal government to consider a public inquiry into the murder rates of aboriginal women.

Cheryl Maloney, president of the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association, says the death of Loretta Saunders has drawn widespread concern among both aboriginal and non-native Canadians who feel the issue deserves greater attention.

"I think that Loretta's case broke through a lot of stereotypes of what missing and murdered aboriginal women look like in this country," Maloney said.

Halifax police allege the Saint Mary's University student was killed Feb. 13, the day she was last seen, at a Halifax apartment she once shared with the two people charged with first-degree murder in her death. The 26-year-old woman's boyfriend has said she was on her way that day to check on the apartment he said she was subletting to the couple.

Saunders's body was found two weeks later on a median off the Trans-Canada Highway west of Moncton, N.B.

Maloney said her death is a reminder that native women are dying violently for a variety of reasons that need deeper examination. She said Saunders's thesis on missing and murdered aboriginal women wasn't restricted to those living at risk.

"We talked about three cases in Nova Scotia near me," Maloney said. "Only one of them was living a risky lifestyle."

Between 2000 and 2008, 10 per cent of all female homicide victims in Canada were aboriginal women and girls, despite them representing only three per cent of the country's female population, according to the Native Women's Association of Canada.

Halifax MP Megan Leslie, who will be attending the vigil, said although the details of Saunders's case are unlike others involving aboriginal women —which sometimes involve addiction or prostitution — her death is still part of a pattern.

"When you look at patterns and you see a pattern where it is indigenous women who are murdered more often, when it is indigenous women who go missing, you have to take a step back and see what the bigger picture is," the NDP member said from Ottawa.

"We need to look at what the systemic issues are here."

Leslie said Saunders has become a catalyst for change as her death has gripped people across the country.

"Something has captured the imagination of people here differently," she said. "I'm grateful for that, because it means we're actually talking about her death."

Last week, an emotional Leslie stood in the House of Commons to call on the federal government to establish a national action plan on violence against women.

A spokeswoman for Kellie Leitch, the federal status of women minister, did not answer a question about whether the federal government would launch an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Barbara Mottram said in an email that the government has committed $25 million over five years to continue efforts to address the issue, citing initiatives such as a national centre for missing persons and supporting development of school and community pilot projects aimed at reducing vulnerability to violence among young aboriginal women.

Maloney said a banner of condolences will be signed during Wednesday's noon vigil. She said it will be sent to Saunders's family in Labrador.

"This young woman dedicated her research to the issue of aboriginal women and giving a voice to women who no longer had a voice. That alone tells us that she would want this and I think her spirit is with us," she said.

"I find it amazing how far her message has gone."

— By Michael Tutton in Halifax.

Follow @mtuttoncporg on Twitter.