When the final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released earlier this week the commissioners chose their words deliberately.
What Canada and colonialism has done to Indigenous people in this country is colonial genocide.
The inquiry, which spent two-and-a-half years listening to the testimony of Indigenous people from around the country, told us they had no other choice but to use that word.
To shy away from the word genocide because it makes us uncomfortable is to undervalue and undermine the work that the commission has done and the courage that it took for so many Indigenous people to speak their truth.
The national press has been adding to the pain by almost immediately tripping over themselves to try and discredit the inquiry’s decision to use that word.
What commentators and editorial boards don’t appear to have done is read the 43-page legal explanation laying out why the commissioners felt genocide was legally the accurate word for what has happened and continues to happen to Indigenous people.
Over more than 1,000 pages in its final report, the inquiry lays out the generations-long effort to silence and suppress the voices of Indigenous people and the prolonged national policies that put them at risk.
By choosing, within days of its release, to focus on discrediting one word, the importance of those stories and facts are being suppressed again.
The inquiry’s decision is based on the United Nation’s definition which defines genocide as:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
This is not a “shifting definition” as some criticism has suggested, but rather something that has been in place since 1948.
While it might be easier for us to imagine that the word genocide only applies to atrocities like the Holocaust or mass killings in Rwanda — after all, that happens to other people, not us — the inquiry’s legal analysis shows why thinking of genocide as only those type of mass killings “belittles the complexity of genocidal violence and undermines its very definition.”
You do not need a totalitarian leader for something to qualify as a genocide. Legally killing and causing harm in this context means more than homicides committed by individuals.
Unlike the holocaust model, genocides can also be slow moving, spread out over centuries and committed using policies of the state.
This is where Canada, whether we want to admit it or not, finds itself.
The Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools and breaches of human and Indigenous rights all fall under one or more of the categories that define genocide.
Those who testified in front of the inquiry spoke of “deaths of women in police custody; [Canada’s] failure to protect Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people from exploitation and trafficking, as well as from known killers; the crisis of child welfare; physical, sexual, and mental abuse inflicted on Indigenous women and girls in state institutions; the denial of Status and membership for First Nations; the removal of children; forced relocation and its impacts; purposeful, chronic underfunding of essential human services; coerced sterilizations; and more,” according to the report.
Add to that the fact that previous efforts such as the 1991 Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the 2001 Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission and the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission have found similar issues but led to little change, it’s hard to argue that the harmful policies by the state are not ongoing.
Acknowledging the genocide is going to bring national attention and going to require that Canada take action. But if that’s what it takes to spur change, so be it.
It hurts to look closely at these issues. It should hurt. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable.
When non-Indigenous people rush to the defensive, when their first instinct is to start sputtering: “that’s not right, that’s not us, I would never do that,” they are discounting and undervaluing the stories of the Indigenous people who testified bravely and publicly in front of the commission.
Non-Indigenous people should be taking direction from Qajaq Robinson, the only non-Indigenous commissioner on the inquiry, who spoke about sitting with feelings “that I’m sure many of you non-Indigenous people in the room or watching may be feeling and sitting with right now. Shame, guilt, denial, that urge to say, ‘No, no, no. That’s not what this is. This is not who I am. I didn’t play a part in this, my ancestors didn’t play a part in this. We’re good people. No.’
“But it’s the truth. It’s our truth. It’s my truth, it’s your truth. The families, survivors and Indigenous peoples across this country have brought this truth to light. I see it. I know it. I own it.
“And I say to you now, it might challenge who we think we are, who we hope to be, but who we will be and who we are is ultimately defined by how we respond now that we know.” (AJ)