On Monday 3 June 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls delivered its final report yesterday to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. After recording testimony from more than 2300 witnesses as part of a cross-country investigation over the last two and a half years, it was presented during closing ceremonies at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec.
(A supplemental report specifically addressing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Quebec was released simultaneously.)
The report is unflinching in its conclusion that the “actions and inactions” of the Canadian state constitute both historical and ongoing genocide. Equally unsparing are its recommendations: more than 230 “Calls for Justice” aimed at rebuilding relationships between Indigenous peoples and “governments, institutions, social service providers, industries and all Canadians.” While these Calls for Justice are not binding, the National Inquiry has nonetheless chosen to present their suggestions as “legal imperatives rather than optional recommendations.”
Key initiatives among these Calls for Justice include: establishing a National Indigenous and Human Rights Ombudsman and a National Indigenous and Human Rights Tribunal; developing and implementing a National Action Plan across all levels of government to ensure equitable access to employment, housing, education, safety, and health care; providing long-term funding for education programs and awareness campaigns related to violence prevention and combating lateral violence; and prohibiting the apprehension of children on the basis of poverty and cultural bias. The RCMP, as well as the judicial system, have been heavily targeted for reforms in the way they deal with Indigenous peoples.
At the core of the report is insight that “all of the missing and murdered are connected by economic, social, and political marginalization, racism, and misogyny woven into the fabric of Canadian society.” According to Chief Commissioner Marion Buller, “the hard truth is that we live in a country whose laws and institutions perpetuate violations of fundamental rights, amounting to a genocide against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA [Two Spirited, Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual] people.”
The term ‘genocide’ is a controversial, but the Inquiry has chosen it carefully. (They also included a supplemental report detailing their decision to use the term.) The Inquiry follows the definition first used by Polish-Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin. Critically, this definition did not restrict the term to the physical destruction of a nation or ethnic group. The Inquiry quotes from Lemkin’s Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944) at length:
“Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accompanied by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the essential foundations of life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. … [This coordinated plan of genocide includes actions and inactions aimed at the] disintegration of the political and social institutions of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of individuals belonging to such groups.” (Raphael Lemkin, quoted in Reclaiming Our Power and Place, Volume 1a, pg. 51)
Officially, Canada recognizes only five genocides: the Holocaust, the Ukrainian Holodomor, the 1915 Armenian genocide, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia between 1992-1995. (The Inquiry notes that in drafting international agreements around genocide following World War II, Canada and other settler-states ensured that their own colonial practices would not fall within the definition. They further note that at the time of his death in the 1950s, Lemkin was working on a book-length project about colonial genocide in the Americas.)
Canada’s complicity in this genocide remains controversial within the country. Recognizing it offends nationalist sentiment, and many of the actions and events involved transpired across vast stretches of time and space. But the conclusion of the Inquiry is unequivocal:
“Legally speaking, this genocide consists of a composite wrongful act that triggers the responsibility of the Canadian state under international law. Canada has breached its international obligations through a series of actions and omissions taken as a whole, and this breach will persist as long as genocidal acts continue to occur and destructive policies are maintained. Under international law, Canada has a duty to redress the harm it caused and to provide restitution, compensation and satisfaction to Indigenous peoples. But first and foremost, Canada’s violation of one of the most fundamental rules of international law necessitates an obligation of cessation: Canada must put an end to its perennial pattern of violence against and oppression of Indigenous peoples.” (National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, A Legal Analysis of Genocide, pg. 26. Emphasis in original.)
Towards a Decolonized Canada
The stark recognition of Indigenous genocide in Canada can only lead to one course of action: decolonization.
Commissioner Michèle Audette has stated “the rightful power and place of women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people must be reinstated, which means dismantling the structures of colonialism in Canadian society.” Commissioner Qajaq Robinson spelled out the far-reaching implications of this when he added: “ending this genocide and rebuilding Canada into a decolonized nation requires a new relationship and an equal partnership between all Canadians and Indigenous Peoples.”
When he first received the report, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to use the word ‘genocide’ when discussing its contents, even when urged by audience members in Gatineau. But later that evening during his opening remarks to the Women Deliver 2019 conference in Vancouver, he acknowledged the findings of the Inquiry:
“Earlier this morning, the national inquiry formally presented their final report, in which they found that the tragic violence that Indigenous women and girls have experienced amounts to genocide.” (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 3 June 2019)
Acknowledging the finding is not necessarily agreement, however, and the federal government intends to do a “thorough review” of the report before committing to its Calls for Justice. But when he received the report, Trudeau declared that his government would fail Indigenous women and girls “no longer.” It remains to be seen what this will look like in an election year.
It is unclear how Newfoundland and Labrador will respond. The Independent reached out to Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball (in his capacity as Minister of Intergovernmental and Indigenous Affairs) for comment on the report’s conclusions and/or recommendations. At publication time, we did not receive a response.
[Update, 4 June 2019, 4:01 PM: The Premier’s Office responded to The Independent’s inquiry with the following statement:
“The Provincial Government has fully supported the work of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and was engaged throughout the process. We remain committed to the work of improving the social, economic, cultural wellbeing and safety of Indigenous women and girls in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Department for the Status of Women will now work with the Department of Justice and Public Safety, and Intergovernmental and Indigenous Affairs Secretariat to review the 231 recommendations set out in the Report, with a view to identifying those where provincial action may be taken.
We commend the survivors and family members who brought forward their truth and thank the Commissioners for their work and valuable insights. We also recognize and honour all those who related their experiences at the hearing in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and St. John’s. Many difficult stories and experiences were shared during the Inquiry and we praise them for their courage and strength.”]
It is an open question how Canadians and their governments will respond to this damning report. Historically, the country has not been receptive to calls for decolonization. But this time may be different. The findings and recommendations of the MMIWG Report may be dismissed, but its charge of genocide cannot be ignored.
“While the Canadian genocide targets all Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA peoples are particularly targeted,” the Inquiry concludes. “Many Indigenous peoples have grown up normalized to violence, while Canadian society shows an appalling apathy to addressing the issue.”
“The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls finds that this amounts to genocide.”
Photo by Jenne Nolan.
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