OTTAWA — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Tuesday an inquiry into why 1,200 indigenous women were murdered or have gone missing over decades.
Their fate has been a festering wound in many of Canada's more than 600 native communities, with allegations of mishandled murder investigations or failures to look into missing persons cases.
The previous Conservative administration had long resisted calls for an inquiry, seeing the disproportionate number of deaths and disappearances as resulting from domestic violence.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper has said these tragedies were not due to a sociological phenomenon but rather were crimes to be investigated by police.
Trudeau, in announcing a public inquiry, is seeking a rapprochement with the 1.4 million descendants of Canada's original inhabitants, who make up 4.3 per cent of the country's total population.
"It is time for a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples," he told an assembly of chiefs in Ottawa.
The relationship should be "one that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience, but a sacred obligation," he said.
The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, welcomed the pledge.
"Chiefs, it is indeed a new day on Turtle Island," he said, using a native name for North America.
"I'm optimistic," Bellegarde said about the new government's change in tone from the previous administration.
"But we also have much work to do. Our 400 years of shared history has brought us a massive gap in the quality of life between indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada."
Bellegarde had called on natives to come out for the first time en masse to vote in the last elections that swept Trudeau's Liberals into power.
It was an effort to sway public policy after years of inaction on native issues, including gross poverty and desperation in many aboriginal communities that breeds abuse, suicide and crime.
A record eight aboriginal Liberal MPs were elected in October, and two were named to Trudeau's cabinet, including Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Native leaders and activists have been calling for an inquiry for more than a decade, since dozens of prostitutes went missing in Vancouver's seedy Downtown Eastside and were later determined to have been victims of a serial killer.
A 2014 report and an update this year by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police identified 1,049 murdered and 172 missing aboriginal women dating back to 1980.
In most cases, the perpetrators were known to the victims.
Wilson-Raybould said the inquiry will be held in the Spring following consultations with victims' families and native groups.
"No inquiry can undo what happened nor can it restore what we have lost," she said.
But the violence against indigenous women -- who represent four per cent of the population and 16 percent of homicide victims -- "is a national tragedy that requires an urgent and deliberate national response," she said.
Wilson-Raybould noted the "heartbreaking reality that girls born in our indigenous communities are three times more likely to experience violent crime".
Past studies have linked the violence to racism, sexism, colonialism, poverty, unemployment, lack of safe transportation, mental health and substance abuse, according to Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said the goal of the inquiry is to bring an end to the ongoing violence through "concrete actions".
"The victims deserve justice," said Trudeau, "their families an opportunity to heal, and to be heard. We must work together to put an end to this on going tragedy."
In addition to ordering the inquiry, Trudeau vowed to make "significant investments" in native education and to lift a cap on federal funding for indigenous communities.
Furthermore, he said Canada would "fully implement" the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Canada and three other countries -- Australia, New Zealand and the United States -- were the only nations to vote against the UN indigenous text in 2007. — AFP