Canada Reckons With Genocide

A damning new report on the deaths of indigenous women highlights post-colonial nations’ failures.

A sign at a Canadian First Nations protest in Toronto references the high number of missing and murdered indigenous women of Canada on April 21, 2018.

A sign at a Canadian First Nations protest in Toronto references the high number of missing and murdered indigenous women of Canada on April 21, 2018. ROBERTO MACHADO NOA/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

Every page of testimony from Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is heartbreaking.

It is a mammoth effort—and one that might provide a way forward for the United States and other post-colonial countries, such as Australia and Brazil, trying to grapple with the past treatment of indigenous peoples.

But for Canadians, it’s also a challenge, one that calls for their country to decolonize and fundamentally change its relationship with indigenous peoples. The report demands the country recognize its role in perpetrating a “deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide”—language that already has irked some commentators.

The public inquiry into the deaths or disappearances of thousands of indigenous women was one of Justin Trudeau’s first acts after becoming prime minister of Canada in 2015. The stories contained in the report, gathered by four years of fact-finding work, are harrowing and frustrating. They detail police inaction, cycles of intergenerational violence, and failed government policies that have broken families and locked indigenous peoples into poverty.

The inquiry heard from 1,484 family members and survivors, but it also initiated a forensic document review, poring over police records to identify gaps and problems in the law enforcement response. Officially, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police identified 1,017 homicides of indigenous women between 1980 and 2012—a homicide rate nearly five times higher than that of non-indigenous women—as well as 164 disappearances. The report maintains the real number is much higher.

The stories of these cases play out through the report, detailing tragedies from every corner of the country.

The calls to action in the report—not merely recommendations, as the commissioners underscored—are aimed at achieving nothing short of decolonization

On the West coast, the inquiry heard from Robin Rain, who lost her daughter Isabella Rose in 2005. She was killed by Rain’s partner at the time, an abusive man who she remained with out of financial necessity, she told the inquiry in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Even when I was sitting in the hospital beside my daughter’s corpse, the detective told me to get away from her body,” she said. “He stood guard over her body to make sure that I didn’t touch her. I couldn’t even hold her hand. I could only sit across the room and look at her little lifeless body.”

In Quebec, Gilberte Vachon told the inquiry about the night her daughter Adèle-Patricia headed out the door. “She came back after and told us ‘I love you.’ That was the last time I heard her voice.” Her daughter was found, beaten, outside a community center in Pessamit. She died in a hospital. MORE

Canada has a long history of ignoring reports like that of the MMIWG inquiry

Closing ceremony of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Photo: Justin Trudeau/Twitter

The hullabaloo over the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) inquiry’s use of the word genocide has obscured its broader message, and that is more than a pity. It is a tragedy.

The inquiry’s report builds a powerful case about the systemic causes for the frighteningly large number of cases of Indigenous women and girls who have been victims of violence, abuse and, too often, murder.

The report focuses, as one might expect, on the justice system, especially on the police. It points out that many Indigenous families have not believed they could trust the police to effectively deal with the disappearances of their loved ones.

Those families had ample reason for their mistrust.

For the most part, policing on traditional Indigenous territory and in urban Indigenous communities has not been a matter of providing a service. The RCMP and local police forces have, in large measure, acted not as peacekeepers, but as occupiers. Rather than serve the people and their communities, their role has been to pacify them.

But the report’s scope goes far beyond policing.

The inquiry identifies structural ways in which the dysfunctional governance of Indigenous people and communities has produced the tragic results it was mandated to investigate.

In its calls to action the report recognizes “self-determination and self-governance as fundamental Indigenous and human rights and a best practice.”

It points out that “self-governance in all areas of Indigenous society are required to properly serve and protect Indigenous women and girls,” adding that this is particularly “true in the delivery of services.”

Quite specifically, the report tackles the way the federal government manages and funds basic services in Indigenous communities, including education. All too often, this is done through term-limited contribution agreements, essentially imposed by the government in Ottawa.

The report notes that these “short-term or project-based funding models in service areas are not sustainable.” It explains that they “represent a violation of inherent rights to self-governance and a failure to provide funding on a needs-based approach, equitably, substantively, and stably.”

Many previous studies made similar recommendations

None of what the MMIWG Inquiry has reported should come as news to anyone who has been paying attention to Indigenous issues for the past four decades.

The auditor general’s office drew the same conclusions as did the MMIWG Inquiry in a long series of damning reports, going back to the beginning of this century. MORE

Our View: Arguing over a word just another insult to Indigenous people

hearing missing women
Bernie Williams, right, who has been an advocate for women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for 30 years, testifies at the final day of hearings at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in Richmond, B.C., on April 8, 2018. A much-anticipated report on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is set to be released to the public in June. The four person commission tasked with examining root causes of violence toward Indigenous women and girls announced today it will hold a closing ceremony in Gatineau, Que. on June 3. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls issued its final report on June 3 and it was truly devastating.

The report included stories from thousands of family members and survivors of violence, as well as experts and officials who delivered testimony at 24 hearings and statement-gathering events in 2017 and 2018.

The report said systemic racial and gendered human rights violations — still happening today — are the cause of thousands of disappearances, murders and violence experienced by Indigenous women, girls, LGBTQ and two-spirited people.

The report pointed to examples of harms suffered at the hands of Canadian authorities, including the failure to protect them from exploitation, trafficking and killers; deaths in police custody; physical, sexual, and mental abuse in state institutions; the removal of children; forced relocations; coerced sterilizations; and the lack of funding for social services.

Marion Buller, the inquiry’s chief commissioner, said the tragedy in Canada is a direct result of a “persistent and deliberate pattern of systemic racial and gendered human- and Indigenous-rights violations and abuses, perpetuated historically and maintained today by the Canadian state, designed to displace Indigenous people from their lands, social structures and governments, and to eradicate their existence as nations, communities, families and individuals.”

And then the report said that the thousands of Indigenous women who were murdered and or went missing represent a genocide.

Now, when faced with such overwhelming evidence of a national tragedy, you would think the reaction would be one of horror, but also resolve from Canadians to ensure this madness is stopped in its tracks.

You would, of course, be wrong.

Instead, a few media outlets and some politicians – like Conservative leader Andrew Scheer – decided to obsess about the use of the word “genocide” – arguing that it was incorrect to use this term in connection to what the report outlined.
So, a report details atrocities in our country, but some people felt it was more important to push back and quibble over semantics – distracting people from the truths detailed in the report. The message sent to Indigenous people was that people weren’t listening and didn’t care about their pain. Star newspaper Indigenous columnist Tanya Talaga said it felt like the inquiry’s findings were being “mocked” by pundits in the media. MORE

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