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Responding to Canada’s Genocide Against Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls: A Settler Roadmap

4 June 2019

Photo: An October 4, 2017, vigil for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, highlighted the case of Gladys Tolley, a woman from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, who was killed by a Sûreté du Québec (SQ) police cruiser in 2001. Her family has been calling on the Québec provincial government to conduct an independent investigation into her death. © Obert Madondo

A Colonial Genocide

On Monday, Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) delivered its final report, entitled ‘Reclaiming Power and Place.’ The title is befitting, a nod to the 500-year colonial campaign to dis-empower indigenous women, dispossess them of their ancestral lands and forcibly assimilate them into wider settler society.  Remarkably, the inquiry tackled this issue head on, concluding that Canada’s colonial policies and ideologies,  embedded in everyday indigenous life, constitute the root cause of a race-based genocide, committed on behalf of the Canadian state, that specifically targets indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual) individuals.

The two-volume, 1200-page report represents the culmination of a nearly three-year process, an extraordinary act of truth-telling and national reckoning involving at least 2,380 participants, almost 1500 survivor and family member testimonials, and 24 public hearings.  It paints a particularly grim picture of daily life for far too many indigenous (First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) women and girls. They are 12 times more likely to be murdered or disappeared compared to any other demographic group and 16 times more likely than white women. Although they make up only 4 percent of Canada’s female population, they account for at least 16 percent of female homicide victims. Those who do escape such physical violence remain subjected to a particularly devasting brand of structural violence through rampant racism, discrimination and economic, social and cultural marginalization. Unfortunately, we still do not know how many indigenous women and girls have been murdered or forcibly disappeared, with families reluctant to report such crimes to the police or other authorities. When survivors and families did come forward, they were often ignored, disbelieved or otherwise denied access to justice.

The propriety of the genocide conclusion will continue to spur much debate in the Canadian media and body politic.  Yet, this should not detract from the compelling case made by the commissioners that the genocide is the direct result of a colonial system that was designed to destroy indigenous families, institutions and knowledge systems to eliminate indigenous peoples as distinct Nations and communities. The impacts of this colonial violence (loss of land, culture, language, traditions, etc.) have worked to destroy the basic social fabric of indigenous society, creating multigenerational trauma and injustices that continue to weaken indigenous sovereignty and identity in modern-day Canada. Thus, as the inquiry makes clear, we cannot truly understand the physical violence levied upon indigenous women and girls unless it is viewed through the lens of the structural and cultural violence that has permeated the relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples for centuries.

Settler Denial and Indifference

As a settler (albeit an American one), my interest primarily lies with what ordinary, individuals can and should do in the face of this colonial violence. The findings of the MMIWG inquiry will inevitably engender a variety of responses among Canada’s settlers. Many will discount the voices of indigenous women and girls, just as they have for decades.  For instance, after the report was leaked to the media last week, former federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt labeled it ‘propagandist’ in a tweet. Many others will approach it with a disturbing amount of apathy, as former Prime Minister Stephen Harper did when he remarked in a 2014 interview that the prospect of a formal inquiry was not ‘really high on our radar.’  Yet, the hope is that many settlers will work to engage with the inquiry with a level of earnest respect that it deserves.

Canada has long embraced a national identity and international reputation as a benevolent, human rights-abiding country. This ‘peacemaker myth’ has now been shattered – first by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and now through the work of the MMIWG inquiry. These processes have worked to validate what indigenous peoples have been saying for decades – that Canada’s relationship with indigenous peoples is defined by violence, and it has been that way for centuries. This remains a difficult truth, particularly for many settlers that would prefer to not view themselves as the perpetrators and beneficiaries of colonialism.

A Settler Roadmap

Yet, it is exactly these truths that settlers need to reckon with in more meaningful ways. The report contains 231 ‘Calls for Justice,’ recommendations deemed necessary (legal imperatives, according to the commissioners) to end and redress this genocidal violence.  Many of these are monumental, yet necessary undertakings – what the inquiry calls an ‘absolute paradigm shift’ in Canada’s relationship with indigenous peoples. And while decolonization cannot be fully realized absent the restitution of indigenous lands, resources and ways of life, the report provides a valuable roadmap for how settlers can take modest steps towards promoting more decolonized indigenous/setter relations.

It begins with reading the report, not just reacting to sound bites through social media, as many of us tend to do. The inquiry gave a voice to many who have been ignored, disbelieved and devalued at every level of Canadian society. We need to take time to sit with their truths, however uncomfortable they may be.  It also requires a serious engagement with the true history of the relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples, not the one that is so often taught in classrooms.  Us settlers need to continually interrogate our own colonial attitudes, especially the ones that unconsciously or benevolently reimpose forms of imperialism. And in doing so, we must acknowledge our role and complicity in colonial violence.

It is only through this process that we can truly become allies of indigenous women and girls. The challenge moving forward will be for settlers to take these difficult truths and, in full partnership with indigenous peoples, help turn them into concrete actions – ones that actively challenge ideologies and institutions that continue to endanger and denigrate indigenous peoples.  Anything less than this merely serves to appease settler guilt and does nothing to promote the larger project of decolonized indigenous/settler relationships.

Colin Luoma is an Intern at Minority Rights Group International.  He is currently completing a PhD in Law at Brunel University London.  He holds a Juris Doctor degree from Saint Louis University School of Law and previously worked as an attorney in the United States.