OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was pressed to move beyond words to confront racial discrimination against indigenous people during an emotional ceremony on Parliament Hill Tuesday honouring missing and murdered women.
"You will have to stand with us Mr. Prime Minister,'' said Sytukie Joamie, a second cousin of award-winning artist Annie Pootoogook, who was found dead in Ottawa's Rideau River on Sept. 19.
Trudeau looked on as Joamie spoke.
"You really have to do concrete action,'' Joamie said.
Trudeau waits to speak at the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 4, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
Trudeau went on to acknowledge the shortcomings of governments.
"It is always a sad moment of reflection to remember the sisters who have left us, who were taken from us and the families they left behind,'' Trudeau said while holding a feather.
"A few years ago, when I was here at this vigil, I recognized these buildings behind us and everyone who has sat in them failed — failed to uphold the values and principles which they were supposed to defend.''
Tuesday's ceremony, held for almost two hours in warm sunshine, featured a special tribute for Pootoogook.
Women hold images of murdered and missing indigenous women during Tuesday's rally. (Photo: CP)
The ceremony drew dozens from Ottawa's Inuit community who have expressed profound disappointment after Ottawa police originally said there was no foul play in the case. The force has now classified the death as suspicious.
"When she was found in the river, the systematic racism started already,'' said Joamie.
Online remarks made by a local officer regarding the case are also under review following a complaint.
Natan Obed, president of Canada's national Inuit organization representing 60,000, said Tuesday that the handling of Pootoogook's case reflects deeply rooted problems that must be addressed during the upcoming inquiry.
"We gathered as families and we shared our journeys and our pain and our grief and yet we still feel like we are forgotten."
Inuit women have said policing is part of a systemic issue, he noted.
"The treatment of Inuit in the justice system and within the policing system often marginalized Inuit women,'' Obed said in an interview.
"The work that is done on solving major crimes for non-indigenous Canadians seems to be a different standard than indigenous Canadians, especially indigenous women, so the inquiry has to look into this.''
There is continued concern about what the study will mean for families as the two-year investigation, set to cost $53.8 million, is now underway at arm's length from government.
"You really have to do concrete action."
Laurie Odjick, who has been looking for her daughter Maisy since 2008, said Tuesday she fears the process will only mean more pain for families like hers.
"We gathered as families and we shared our journeys and our pain and our grief and yet we still feel like we are forgotten,'' she said while holding a picture of her daughter. "No answers. Shame on them.''
Odjick also said she has little faith in those who will have to implement the inquiry recommendations, suggesting the House of Commons is the "house of broken promises.''
During question period Tuesday, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett stressed the government cannot wait for the commission's findings before it proceeds to address issues such as housing, shelter access, sexism and racism in policing and child welfare.
First Nations advocate Cindy Blackstock, who spent nine years fighting the federal government on the underfunding of services on reserve, fears the inquiry recommendations will only collect dust because the Liberals have not complied with three legal orders on child welfare from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
The inquiry recommendations will not be legally binding.
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