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Updated: Fri, 04 Oct 2013 19:44:19 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Aboriginal leader Shawn Atleo warns of 'grave' human rights crisis



Laurie Odjick holds a photo of her daughter, Maisy, who disappeared in 2008 at age 16. Julie Van Dusen/CBC

Laurie Odjick holds a photo of her daughter, Maisy, who disappeared in 2008 at age 16. Julie Van Dusen/CBC

Canada is facing a "grave" human rights crisis, warned the National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo during a rally to honour and remember the lives of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls on Parliament Hill Friday.

Canadians are rallying in over 200 locations across the country at Sisters In Spirit rallies, an event organized by the Native Women’s Association of Canada annually for the past eight years on Oct. 4.

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Missing, murdered aboriginal women honoured in Sudbury

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​​UN special rapporteur, James Anaya, to gauge aboriginal peoples' progress

For nearly three hours, dozens of families gathered on the steps of Parliament Hill in Ottawa to recount the stories of the missing and murdered women in their lives, often breaking down into tears as they pleaded for the federal government to take action and call a national public inquiry.

Atleo delivered a passionate plea as he called once again on the federal government to "shine a light into the deepest, darkest corners of this country's consciousness and the actions that are happening to this very day."

"We will make sure the world knows when the [UN's] Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples Issues comes to this country, James Anaya, that we will hold a mirror up for all Canadians and the entire world to know that a country… like was said here today on these steps, faces a grave human rights crisis," Atleo said.

"We are calling for action right now." 

Anaya is to arrive in Canada this weekend.

Starting Monday, Anaya will embark on nine-day tour of the country where he will meet with Aboriginal Peoples, government officials and even natural resource industry representatives "to take stock of what progress has been made" since 2003 when his predecessor last visited Canada.

While the federal government has yet to agree to call a national public inquiry, in a written statement sent to CBC News, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said: "The Government of Canada is deeply concerned about the high number of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls, and we are taking firm action to achieve lasting change."

"This includes the 2010 introduction by our government of a seven-point strategy that improves the response of the law enforcement and justice systems to better meet the needs of aboriginal women, girls and their families."

Rally speakers

A young woman named Caitlin Tolley spoke in honour of her grandmother, Gladys Tolley, who she said was killed by a Quebec provincial police officer over 10 years ago.

"My family is still hurt by the loss of my grandmother that was taken from me at a young age. We are still demanding an inquiry and a followup into her case."

"Today I would like to ask Mr. Harper, how many times must we come and stand out here, and call and demand for an inquiry for our women," Tolley told a crowd gathered on Parliament Hill.

Tolley called on all political parties to "do the right thing."

Dawn Lavell-Harvard, the interim president of NWAC, also spoke at the rally.

She said the case of missing or murdered aboriginal women is not a women's issue or an aboriginal issue but rather "a human tragedy" and "a national disgrace."

The interim president said, "the time has come for us to put aside the wrangling over jurisdiction, our concerns about political stripes, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, to raise our voices and to make sure the memory of those women carry on."

Gloria and Ira Johnson held a banner for murdered and missing women and a photo of their sister Sandra, who was 18 when she was murdered in 1992 in Thunder Bay, Ont.

National public inquiry

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair also spoke at the rally, accompanied by NDP aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder and NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar.​ 

"We will do everything we can to tell our colleagues that the only thing that will bring justice to you, to your families, to the memory of your loved ones is to do what you have asked every year … and that is to have an inquiry," Dewar said.

Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett and Liberal Senator Lillian Dyck, who is a member of the Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, also spoke at the rally. So did Green Party member Lorraine Rekmans. No Conservative MP spoke at the rally on Parliament Hill.

The NWAC has said it has documented over 600 cases where aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing between 2005 and 2010 — 

Myrna LaPlante travelled to Ottawa from Saskatchewan with her niece Jessica to honour their missing aunt, 78-year-old Emily Osmond LaPlante.

"It shouldn't be that difficult to figure out what happened to her. So I'm really annoyed that probably within the last four years we haven't heard anything from the RCMP," LaPlante said.

"We need the RCMP to take up this case again and help us."

LaPlante said that in 2011 her nephew Cody Wolfe went missing at the age of 17. She said the emotional and financial impact of their disappearances has taken a toll on their family.

The NWAC called on the federal government to launch a national public inquiry into the case of missing or murdered aboriginal women one year ago today.

Canada's premiers agreed, this summer, to support aboriginal leaders in their call for a national inquiry during a two-day summit of the Council of the Federation in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., in July.

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