TORONTO (AP) — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government on Tuesday launched an investigation into hundreds of murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls, stressing the need for a stronger relationship with the country's indigenous communities.
The decision by Trudeau, a Liberal, marked another policy reversal from his predecessor Stephen Harper's Conservative government.
Harper refused to authorize a public inquiry even though a police report last year said a disproportionate number of female homicide victims in Canada are aboriginal. That report came days after a United Nations watchdog called for an inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women.
Trudeau has made working with the aboriginal community to rectify ongoing issues a priority. He said those touched by the tragedy of murdered and missing aboriginal women have waited long enough.
"The victims deserve justice, their families an opportunity to heal and to be heard," he said during a speech Tuesday. "We must work together to put an end to this ongoing tragedy."
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said the government will consult the families of victims over the next two months to get their input into what the inquiry needs to accomplish.
"I feel so overwhelmed with emotions right now," said Lorelei Williams, whose cousin Tanya Holyk was a victim of Canada's worst serial killer, Robert Pickton. "I'm so grateful and excited that this is actually happening but sad at the same time. Today is Tanya's birthday. She would've been 40."
Last year's Royal Canadian Mounted Police report said aboriginal women represent 4.3 percent of the total female population but that 16 percent of all female homicide victims are from First Nations, as Canada's indigenous people are called.
The police reviewed cases from 1980 to 2013 and found 1,181 aboriginal women fell into the missing or murdered category — almost double earlier estimates. Of those women, 164 were missing and 1,017 murdered.
"We recognize that a number of factors, like racism, marginalization, sexism, and poverty have contributed to the ongoing tragedy of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls," said the Minister of the Status of Women, Patty Hajdu. "This inquiry is necessary to address and prevent future violence."
Trudeau received a standing ovation after speaking at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Gatineau, Quebec. He is the first prime minister in recent memory to attend the event hosted by the Assembly of First Nations. The national advocacy organization represents aboriginal communities, which includes more than 900,000 people living in 634 First Nation communities across the country.
"You have made a great start in changing the relationship, Prime Minister," said Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. "I see that change has already begun."
Under Harper, the Canadian government had tense relations with the aboriginal community. He was faulted for failing to implement the recommendations of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to reduce the number of indigenous children in state care, eliminate gaps in education and employment, protect indigenous languages and launch a probe into murdered and missing aboriginal women.
Trudeau said Tuesday that his government would implement all 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
"What's needed is nothing less than a total renewal between Canada and First Nations people," he said.