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Police chiefs take no position on native women inquiry

VICTORIA - The head of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police says the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women is "on the radar" of the county's law enforcement leaders.

But Chief Const. Jim Chu of the Vancouver Police Department, who is the association's outgoing president, avoided taking sides in what has become a highly politicized debate over the need for a national public inquiry.

Hundreds of the nation's top police officers gathered Monday for the start of their annual general meeting in Victoria, where Chu said the association's policing with aboriginal people committee had already met for a couple of days to discuss the issue.

"They've had an extensive discussion on it," said Chu, referring to the committee.

"One thing that hasn't happened is the groups that are calling for the national inquiry have not asked us to support their request. ... The details on the nature of the request and the nature of the inquiry, we need to get them."

Chu said the association will reach out to the Native Women's Association of Canada and other groups to get those details.

"And then we'll come out with a position," said Chu.

The death of teenager Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg has renewed calls for an inquiry.

The petite 15-year-old was found Aug. 17, wrapped in a bag and dumped in the Red River. She had been in Winnipeg less than a month when she ran away from foster care.

Hers is the latest name on a list that the RCMP says includes 1,181 cases of murdered or missing aboriginal women between 1980 and 2012. In a report released earlier this year, the force said aboriginal women make up 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population, but account for 16 per cent of female homicides and 11.3 per cent of missing women.

"It has been on their radar and they're well aware also of the report the RCMP released with the numbers of missing women, and that's been part of the discussion of that committee as well," Chu said.

Michele Audette, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, seemed disappointed that the national chiefs shied away from a stance.

She said she would put in a call Tuesday to specifically ask for the association's support.

"I think this organization has an important role to play," she said. "We have to have them on board. They're the front line and it's not easy."

The federal government has firmly rejected an inquiry.

"We should not view this as sociological phenomenon," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last week. "We should view it as crime. It is crime against innocent people, and it needs to be addressed as such."

RCMP spokesman Sgt. Greg Cox said it is not the place for police to weigh in on the issue.

"Though we have a part to play in prevention and awareness, our primary role is to investigate criminality, which means we are typically involved after a tragedy has occurred," Cox said in an email.

"What our data reveals is that we resolve about nine out of 10 cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women and we are working with our partners to be even more effective in communities with the tools and budgets we have."

Politicians have been less reticent.

This past weekend, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau spoke out in favour of a national inquiry, and provincial and territorial leaders endorsed the idea last year at the annual Council of the Federation premiers' conference. The issue will be on the agenda again next week when premiers meet in Charlottetown.

"I think when the provinces are united as we are, together with the national aboriginal leadership, I think there is momentum," Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall told The Canadian Press on Monday.

"I don't know how long you ignore those kinds of things at any particular level of government before you want to ask every single question that you can possibly ask to make sure that it doesn't happen again."

In light of the political divisions, Audette said she hopes she can entice the federal government to at least bring together for roundtable talks the different ministries and programs that may have a role to play, from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada to the Department of Public Safety to various social services.

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