The cochair of the February 14th Women's Memorial March committee has criticized the federal government's consultation process in advance of a high-profile inquiry.
Speaking at a news conference before today's event in Vancouver, Fay Blaney said that her group is "still pressing for women's groups to be heard" regarding the commission into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
"I think that the front-line service providers have an awful lot to contribute to the design of the inquiry," Blaney told reporters inside the Carnegie Centre. "And they're the ones that are working with the survivors indigenous women that are encountering violence in their lives. So I think it's critical for the ministers to consult with women's groups, front-line service providers, transition houses, women's centres, [and] antiviolence workers."
She also accused the federal government of constructing a "false dichotomy...a divide-and-conquer strategy".
By that, Blaney said that the federal government's "families-first" approach to consultation means that survivors and women's groups feel that "they're in competition for airtime with families."
"We don't want to be put in that position," she emphasized. "We firmly believe that families must be heard. It's very important that families are heard. They have an awful lot to contribute to the inquiry process. But along the way, they [government officials] have to make space for survivors and women's groups that work with survivors."
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was outside the Carnegie Centre before the march. There, the Straight asked her to comment on Blaney's remarks about women's groups' participation in pre-inquiry consultations.
"We have committed first and foremost to speak with the families, which we've been doing across the country," Wilson-Raybould acknowledged.
However, she added that the government is also "committed to meeting with organizations, the national aboriginal organizations, as well as women's organizations, [and] front-line workers".
"We welcome all contributions, all perspectives, all suggestions on how we can put together an inquiry and establish objectives that we all want to achieve," Wilson-Raybould said.
The justice minister also noted that she and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett have met with Blaney in Vancouver.
During the news conference, the cochair of the February 14th Women's Memorial March committee said that the inquiry needed to be "national in scope".
Blaney maintained that provinces and territorial governments "have a huge piece of the pie" in terms of responsibility for the number of indigenous women who go missing or are murdered every year.
"We know that the child-apprehension rates across this country are rampant," Blaney said. "I think over half of the children in care in this province are indigenous children. That's devastating for mothers."
She also commented on the challenges facing indigenous young people "aging out of the foster-care system".
"We're seeing them here in the streets of the Downtown Eastside," Blaney said. "They're alienated from their families, from their communities, as are many women like myself that are fleeing violence from our home communities. We end up in urban centres and are alienated from our families and our communities."
She emphasized that provincial and territorial governments "have a huge role to play in order for this process to be effective to get to the root causes".
The chief of the Cheam First Nation, Ernie Crey, is one of the most outspoken family members of missing and murdered indigenous women. His sister Dawn's remains were found on the Pickton pig farm.
Last year, Crey told the Straight that he felt that B.C.'s representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, would be an excellent choice as commissioner for the inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, has mentioned children's advocate Cindy Blackstock as a potential candidate.
"Both of those women have been tireless advocates for children," Wilson-Raybould told the Straight. "We haven't made any determinations as to a commissioner or commissioners. But we certainly have been getting many suggestions and look forward to continuing to get feedback. And we will consider all that feedback in terms of the commissioners and in terms of the framework for the inquiry."
Blaney told the Straight last year that she thinks gender-equality advocate Sharon McIvor would be an ideal choice. McIvor spent decades fighting federal legislation that discriminated against First Nations women by denying them Indian status if they married outside of their community.
Near the end of the news conference, Blaney highlighted how gender inequality on-reserve isn't being adequately addressed.
She pointed out that her great-grandmother was sexually assaulted when she was between 12 and 14 years old. She pressed charges and the rapist was jailed for five years in Oakalla.
"In that time, the entire community turned against her," Blaney said. "She ended up here in the Downtown Eastside. And she was thrown out of one of the windows in the Downtown Eastside."
She claimed that this kind of climate still exist within some First Nations communities. And she expressed fear that in those parts of Canada, it will be very difficult for women to talk about violence directed against them by men.
"The Indian Act has done an outstanding job in terms of instilling misogyny and patriarchy within our communities," Blaney alleged. "And there's been a buy-in by our indigenous male leadership with the patriarchy. It's a challenge for them to step aside and allow indigenous women's voices to be heard."
In closing, Blaney urged the federal government to do adequate consultation to ensure that women's safety is front and centre when the inquiry is held.