What does it mean to call Canada’s treatment of Indigenous women a ‘genocide’?

In international relations, words have weight – and some are much heavier than others


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured at the Women Deliver Conference in Vancouver on Tuesday, said he accepted the MMIWG inquiry’s conclusion that the massive number of deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women constituted “a genocide.” (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Now, the debate over the unique nature of the crime of genocide has become part of Canada’s political dialogue going into the fall election campaign. In its final report, released this week, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls described those thousands of victims as casualties of a “genocide.”

Yesterday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau adopted that language as his own, telling an audience in Vancouver that “we accept the findings of the commissioners that it was genocide.”

But despite Trudeau’s careful use of the past tense, the commissioners who drafted that report were talking very explicitly about the present. They wrote that Canada has pursued “a continuous policy, with shifting expressed motives but an ultimately steady intention, to destroy Indigenous peoples physically, biologically, and as social units.”

The report points a finger of blame at “present-day Canadian state conduct,” including what it calls “proactive measures to destroy, assimilate and eliminate Indigenous peoples.”

National Inquiry commissioner Marion Buller defended her commission’s decision to use the genocide label, saying comparisons to other countries are misleading.


Chief Commissioner of the National Inquiry Marion Buller addresses a crowd at the closing ceremonies for community hearings in April 2018. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

“I think it’s important for everybody, for all Canadians, to know that we often think of genocide as the Holocaust, the killings in Africa or elsewhere. And of course that is genocide, and of course that is tragedy,” she said.

“But the type of genocide we have in Canada is, as my colleague Commissioner Robinson said, death by a million paper cuts for generations.”

“Examinations of the commission and risk of genocide largely and unhelpfully revolve around the numbers killed,” the report says, suggesting that the definition is bad at capturing what it calls “the particular nature of Colonial Genocide.”

The report then says that Canada should be judged not only by its actions, but also by its omissions. Together, it says, they constitute the Canadian government’s “genocidal policy, a ‘manifest pattern of similar conduct’, which reflects an intention to destroy Indigenous peoples.” MORE

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“This [declaration of genocide] is likely to spur commentary in mainstream media about the veracity of that conclusion, but if we were to apply the United Nations definition of genocide, it should be undeniable that the Canadian state has committed genocide against Indigenous peoples.”

And today, the genocide continues,

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