07/14/2015 04:00 EDT | Updated 07/13/2016 05:59 EDT

Aboriginal Leaders Ask Premiers To Get Serious About Reconciliation, Violence

"We want to see concrete action."


ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Dawn Lavell Harvard says the time for well-intentioned but often empty talk is over.

The president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, along with other national aboriginal leaders, will step up pressure for action when they meet Wednesday with provincial and territorial premiers in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L.

They're calling for detailed work plans to go with the photo ops and communiques from their yearly sit-down with the Council of the Federation.

"The most pressing concern we have right now in our communities is the ongoing level of violence," Lavell Harvard said from Ottawa.

She believes provinces should step in as the federal Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper refuse to call a public inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt was among federal officials who attended a national roundtable on the issue last winter. They highlighted justice investments and a five-year, $25-million plan to reduce related violence as proof of action, saying an inquiry isn't necessary.

"We want to see concrete action," Lavell Harvard said. "Policing, access to justice, equity and discrimination issues.

"We need to push the provinces to do more."

The 2011 National Household Survey suggests indigenous women make up 4.3 per cent of the national female population. But the RCMP has said they're victims in 16 per cent of female homicides and account for 11 per cent of missing women.

The Mounties have reported that almost 1,200 aboriginal women have been murdered or have vanished since 1980, and that attackers are often known to the victims.

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the issue will be front and centre Wednesday.

He also said the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission report released last month must not gather dust.

"The TRC recommendations and calls to action captured the whole country and the world," he said in an interview. "We just need to give them life."

The commission described as "cultural genocide" the suffering borne by generations of aboriginal children in once-mandatory residential schools.

It estimated more than 6,000 boys and girls, about one in 25, died in the institutions. Scores of others endured horrific physical and sexual abuse.

The commission made 94 recommendations toward reconciliation, urging Canada to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework.

Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, representing about 55,000 Canadian Inuit, said disproportionate numbers of aboriginal children in provincial care will also be discussed.

"If we could only get the federal government to the table, that would definitely go a long way."

Harper's long-standing absence from first ministers' meetings sends a strong message, Bellegarde said.

"If we're going to rebuild this country, we need all levels of leadership to be there."

Provinces need to start hinging resource development on company commitments to consult, employ and share benefits with aboriginal people, Bellegarde said.

Todd Russell, president of the NunatuKavut Community Council, notes the meeting will take place near the $8.6-billion Muskrat Falls hydro development.

His group, representing about 6,000 Inuit-Metis in southern Labrador, says it wasn't properly consulted and is challenging the project in court.

The Nunatsiavut government has also raised alarms about how potential mercury contamination from flooding could affect Lake Melville, a food source for 2,000 Inuit.

Host Premier Paul Davis said the province reached a major benefits agreement on Muskrat Falls with the Innu Nation.

"I think there is great value in ensuring it happens on a more consistent basis not only in Newfoundland and Labrador, but across the country," he said in an interview.

Davis said the premiers' working group on aboriginal affairs has been crafting action plans for several matters, including violence against women. Truth and Reconciliation Commission members Marie Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild will speak to the meeting in Labrador about how provinces can respond, he added.

The premiers move to St. John's for sessions Thursday and Friday, including energy and economic issues, health care, trade and climate change.

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