Their fate has been a festering wound in many of Canada’s 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% 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.
It must be “based on recognition of rights, respect, cooperation, and partnership” and be guided “by the spirit and intent of the original treaty relationship”, he said, as well as respect “inherent rights, treaties and jurisdictions, and… the decisions of our courts”.
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,” he 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,” he said.
Bellegarde urged both sides to work together to fully implement treaties and to eliminate gross poverty and desperation in many aboriginal communities that breeds abuse, suicide and crime.
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 by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police identified 1 181 murdered or missing aboriginal women dating back to 1952. Of these, 120 homicides and 105 missing cases remained unsolved.
In most cases, the perpetrators were known to the victims.
Minister of Status of Women, Patty Hajdu, said on Monday she wants to understand “the conditions that create such an imbalance and make indigenous women and children or… young girls that much more at risk than the average Canadian woman”.
“It’s really [about] looking at the system issues that create the conditions for such a sociological terrible phenomenon,” she said.
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, the United States and New Zealand – were the only nations to vote against the UN indigenous text in 2007.