02/27/2015 04:40 EST | Updated 04/29/2015 05:59 EDT

Missing, murdered women roundtable agrees to keep discussions going

OTTAWA - It was a day of talks punctuated by powerful symbols.

Beating drums. Tearful family testimonials. Protesters raging against their exclusion from the table. A police officer hugging a protesting victim of violence, who burst into tears.

Leaders of national First Nations, Inuit and Metis organizations, representatives of families wracked by violence, and officials from provincial, territorial and federal governments gathered Friday for a roundtable on the terrible, ongoing legacy of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

It appeared the biggest breakthrough was an agreement to meet again before the end of 2016, when they will assess the success of a multi-fronted public awareness campaign and an effort to find better community policing models.

"Today we have seen the beginning of what I hope will be a continuing national dialogue on missing and murdered indigenous women," Bob McLeod, the premier of the Northwest Territories and the chair of the meeting, told a closing news conference attended by everyone involved except the federal government.

And that was a powerful symbol, too.

A block away in a bunker-like room under heavy security at a different hotel, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt and Kellie Leitch, the Conservative minister for the status of women, repeatedly called the day's talks "historic" — while making clear that the central demand for a national inquiry on the issue of violence against indigenous women is a non-starter.

"Our position on the national inquiry is we will not be moving forward with one," said Leitch, who nonetheless maintained the federal government "supported each of the action items that were put forward on the table."

Perhaps that's why they held a news conference separate from the other roundtable participants.

"There was not agreement to some action items that many of us did think would help; the federal government will have to answer that question as well," Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne had said just a few minutes before, flanked by the various participants of the talks.

Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, flatly asserted federal leadership is lacking.

"Of course not — simple answer," said Bellegarde.

"Is the leadership being there? No."

Bellegarde said a five-year, $25-million federal plan announced last September, which will fund community safety plans, "engage men and boys on and off reserve," raise awareness of healthy relationships and other measures is a welcome first step.

But everyone at the table agreed the issues run much deeper and broader.

Valcourt, for his part, had his own take on why there wasn't agreement on a broader agenda.

The Aboriginal Affairs minister said Ontario and New Brunswick had dropped ideas on the table "at the last minute."

"You can't at the last minute decide what you will do with a series of 10 (Ontario) proposals — and New Brunswick adds on another four — without ever knowing what they're about. We are more responsible than that with taxpayers."

All parties agreed there was no commitment of any new money Friday, although Wynne said the public awareness campaign will presumably cost provinces, territories and the federal treasury something.

There was also common talk of an "action plan" and benchmarks for success, although that too appeared to paper over a divide between Ottawa and everyone else.

Pressed on how outcomes will be measured, Leitch said the federal government has its own goals, without specifying what they are.

"We have ours," said Leitch, adding the framework from Friday's talks will have another set. "They will be coming forward with theirs."

In the end, it might be as much as anyone could hope for from the exercise.

Judy Maas, one of four representatives of families who have lost sisters, daughters and mothers spoke eloquently at the group news conference, holding out hope that action will one day follow the words.

"What I can say today is we spoke loud and clear. We were very truthful in what we had to say, and everyone that was present, I believe that they heard us," said Maas.

"Just by the fact that we are here, we still have a hand out to say 'We still are in this relationship together and we'll walk this journey together.'"

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