THIS is not the first time that the term genocide has been used to describe the situation of Indigenous people in Canada. Then it was justified; now it is not. Then it accurately described the actions of the state; now it seems designed to provoke Canadians rather than prod them to address a serious matter.
In 2015, with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s landmark report, then Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin said that Canada attempted to commit “cultural genocide” against Aboriginal peoples. Since the arrival of settlers, she said, Canada developed an “ethos of exclusion and cultural annihilation.”
Commission chair Murray Sinclair agreed, particularly as it applied to “forcibly removing children from their families and placing them within institutions (residential schools) that were cultural indoctrination centres.”
"I think as commissioners we have concluded that cultural genocide is probably the best description of what went on here,” Sinclair said. “But more importantly, if anybody tried to do this today, they would easily be subject to prosecution” under the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide, which defined it as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Are we trying to do this today? Is Canada committing genocide against its Indigenous population?
The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls thinks so, repeatedly using the term genocide in its final report released Monday. It is a brutal read, particularly the emotional testimony of family members who lost mothers and daughters in the many cases that remain unsolved, preventing the sense of closure so necessary in any culture.
According to the report there exists “a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples . . . empowered by colonial structures . . . leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations.”
While it is true that, in the case of MMIWG, some police in the past did not treat some cases seriously, and some Canadians didn’t much care, the tide has certainly changed. There has been an explosion of public concern about the state of many Indigenous populations based on a new level of understanding of their situations. The rising number of Indigenous stories in the news media alone tells us that Canadians are taking their collective responsibility seriously and, in their comments, seeking and approving measures to make things better.
For example, if there is one thing that riles people it is the persistence of unclean drinking water on First Nations. The federal government has committed to end all such advisories by 2021, a pledge for which it receives not enough credit and too much uninformed criticism.
For the record, 85 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted since the pledge was made in 2015 with 58 remaining.
Unfortunately, many such improvements are temporary. Earlier this year, all 11 advisories at Slate Falls First Nation’s pump houses were lifted in what was deemed a major success. Seventeen days later an advisory was back on. A memo to then Indigenous Services minister Jane Philpott obtained through access-to-information legislation showed that Slate Falls’ water operators weren’t testing the water in the weeks after the plant opened, and there was little oversight to ensure the water was being monitored properly.
The department acknowledged that (despite the federal commitment and the inherent employment opportunities) “many First Nations across Canada experience challenges monitoring, operating and maintaining water systems.”
This is the crux of much of what still ails relations between First Nations, that demand autonomy, and governments, that provide resources and then respectfully step back.
In the case of MMIWG, it is a step too far – by far – to accuse Canada and Canadians of collective responsibility – of genocide -- in what is certainly a national tragedy.
“We cannot pretend to be a country that cares about human rights, that has a positive impact on the world, if we do not end this situation once and for all,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking for most Canadians. Unfortunately, after initially avoiding it, he agreed the matter amounts to genocide.
Though the murder or disappearance of at least 1,200 Indigenous women and girls is horrible, the crimes were not “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part” a particular racial or ethnic group by the state or by Canadians collectively.
Instead we have another brutal truth, one that was essentially ignored by the inquiry: the murder of Aboriginal females is largely confined to the Indigenous community.
As outlined by Hymie Rubenstein, retired professor of anthropology at the University of Manitoba in the National Post this week, RCMP and other statistics reveal that 90 per cent of these murders are committed by Indigenous men who knew their victims; 72 per cent of Aboriginal women are murdered mainly in their homes; very few women involved in the sex trade, whether Indigenous or not, are murdered by their clients; and there is no significant difference between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal homicide victims in the sex trade.
But Marion Buller, the inquiry’s chief commissioner, insists that these cases amount to an ongoing “deliberate, race, identity and gender-based genocide” in and by Canada.
If the commissioners’ goal was to gain headlines, mission accomplished. If the intent was to provoke, to “stimulate or incite (someone) to do or feel something, especially by arousing anger in them,” they’ve succeeded.
But what has this hyperbole done except divert attention from the important goal of ending danger to Indigenous women and girls, not to mention – and they didn’t – Indigenous men who represent at least 70 per cent of murdered or missing Aboriginal persons?
Since mitigating the crime is indeed the goal accepted by most Canadians, why did the commissioners ignore most guilty parties – Indigenous men -- and instead lay the blame on the Canadian people as a whole?
It would be another national tragedy if the commission’s misplaced priorities served to hurt the important tasks ahead, beginning with increased police presence at what is so often the scene of the crime – Canada’s First Nations.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.
(Originally published June 8)