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Canada Reckons With Genocide
A damning new report on the deaths of indigenous women highlights post-colonial nations’ failures.
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.
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.
On the east coast, in Nova Scotia, the inquiry heard from Francis Pictou. He is sure he knows who killed his sister in 1993, but her body has never been found. “To us, she’s missing. To the guy that killed her, she’s not missing,” he told the inquiry.
Greta Jack, at a hearing in Whitehorse, Yukon, in the north, recounted the disappearance of her sister Barbara. “She called me practically every day … from the group home and we’d talk, and I’d meet her and, you know, visit. And she was just gone. She just vanished.” Her body was found on a nearby mountain—she was only 14. Her death hasn’t been explained.
The Canadian government’s effort to address these wrongs comes after decades of pressure from indigenous peoples.
It wasn’t until 2008 that Canada formally apologized for ripping indigenous children from their families and placing them in state or church schools. The Canadian government of the day ordered a full national inquiry into those so-called residential schools, institutions designed to strip them of their language and culture, some of which operated right up until 1996.
The report uncovered widespread physical and sexual abuse, and it discovered that as many as 6,000 children died in those schools. It concluded that the Canadian government sought to “cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada.”
The inquiry, formally named the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, called that process “cultural genocide” and issued 94 calls to action—including requesting an apology from the pope of the Catholic Church, improving access to education on First Nations reserves, adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and, notably, ordering a specific inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. But it wasn’t until 2015 that a newly-elected Trudeau followed through on that pledge.
The current report culminates in 231 calls to action on how to address the deaths plaguing the community, but also on how to fundamentally fix the fraught relationship between the Canadian government and indigenous people.
The report comes to the pointed conclusions that data collection is spotty, that indigenous communities “are under-prioritized and under-resourced,” and families are often marginalized through an investigative process marred by a “lack of trust.”
In its most damning conclusion, the inquiry found that “prejudice, stereotypes, and inaccurate beliefs and attitudes about indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA [two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual] persons negatively influence police investigations, and therefore death and disappearances are investigated and treated differently from other cases.”
The calls to action in the report—not merely recommendations, as the commissioners underscored—are aimed at achieving nothing short of decolonization, with an eye to “undo the forces of colonialism and to re-establish Indigenous Nationhood.”
Included in the calls to action are measures to address violence against indigenous women and girls, including a national strategy that will address “employment, housing, education, safety, and health care.” It also recommends beefing up missing persons investigations to ensure that these cases don’t fall through the cracks.
There are points at which the report has to grapple with thorny problems. It recommends the government find alternatives to prison for indigenous peoples, who are vastly overrepresented in the criminal justice system—they make up more than one-quarter of inmates, despite being less than 5 percent of the overall population. Specifically, the report suggests looking at reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences as an avenue to reduce that overrepresentation.At the same time, the report recommends stiffer penalties and harsher sentences for murders of indigenous women, especially cases of intimate partner violence. That is likely to disproportionately affect indigenous men. Many perpetrators of violence against indigenous women are themselves indigenous—products, advocates and activists say, of centuries of colonialism and systemic discrimination from the state, especially the criminal justice system.
There’s nothing legally binding about these calls, but public opinion has swung into solidarity with indigenous peoples in recent years. Rejecting the calls to action outright would be politically untenable.
“We accept their findings, including that what happened amounts to genocide,” Trudeau told a crowd in Vancouver the day after the report was released earlier this month. Trudeau has been under particular pressure to prove his commitment on indigenous issues since the scandal around his treatment of Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former minister of justice and a Kwakwakawakw woman.
Opposition leader Andrew Scheer, the head of the Conservative Party, avoided the word “genocide.” “I think the tragedy involved with missing and murdered indigenous women and girls is its own thing,” he told reporters. “It is its own tragedy and does not fall into that category of genocide.”
Just the same, both Trudeau and Scheer—as well as other leaders in Parliament—committed to adopting a national action plan to combat violence against indigenous women and to move forward with other calls to action contained in the report.
The crisis outlined in the report is not a uniquely Canadian one.
“Exactly what happens in Canada has happened here, and has happened in Alaska, and is happening in South America,” said Roxanne White, a grassroots activist from the Yakama Nation in Washington state, who works with and advocates for families of murdered and missing indigenous people.
“There are no borders,” White said.
Indeed, many indigenous peoples see Turtle Island—a common name among First Nations and Native Americans for North America—as a single entity. Some indigenous nations even straddle the U.S.-Canada border.
White said the stories that have taken center stage in Canada bear a striking resemblance to the ones she grapples with every day.
“My aunt was murdered in front of me in 1996,” White said. Others in her family have disappeared or have been murdered. She herself is a survivor of human trafficking and has struggled with addiction. All of that, she said, has prepared her for the work she’s doing now.
“It’s not just me,” she said.
But while many in the United States, like White, recognize the crisis on a visceral level, the statistics and data are simply not there to quantify the problem.
Data is a primordial problem, here. Even the Canadian number—1,017 slain women and girls; 164 missing—is likely incomplete, thanks to inconsistent data collection practices across the country, as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police themselves note.
The lack of data is even more acute in the United States, where federal and state divisions make law enforcement information messy and incomplete.
Ruth Buffalo is an indigenous woman and a member of the North Dakota House of Representatives. In March, she testified before a state committee that “the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is a nationwide crisis, worsened by the fact that it is also a nationwide data crisis.”
In the United States, indigenous activism surged in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, which restored numerous rights of indigenous nations. But since then, despite determined activism, indigenous issues largely disappeared from the national agenda until the emergence of the Standing Rock protests in 2016. Unlike other post-colonial countries like Canada or Australia, no large-scale inquiry into past abuses has been commissioned. The demands of the Middle East wars after 2001 also meant that the FBI diverted time and attention away from the reservations.
The FBI reports that, as of 2016, it had 5,712 cases of missing indigenous women and girls, though it admits that its statistical gathering for indigenous peoples is not perfect. The Urban Indian Health Institute tried to compile the number for urban areas on its own, finding 506 cases of missing and murdered women from the 71 cities that provided data.
It is impossible to say how many indigenous women have been murdered in the United States.
“As a public health professional and researcher, I know data tells a story,” Buffalo told the committee in March. “Without data, there is no clear evidence that a problem even exists.”
White, the Yakama activist, said she’s been paying close attention to what indigenous activists have managed to achieve in Canada. “The movement here [in the United States] is really, really new,” she added. As such, she said they’re very much at the “level of education and awareness.”
Indigenous activists have been working on this issue for years, and it’s recently started to bear fruit. States with relatively powerful indigenous lobbies, such as North Dakota and Alaska, have been pioneers. On the national level, then-North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in 2017 introduced Savanna’s Act, a bill to address violence against indigenous women. The act would improve data collection and has received bipartisan support in the Senate, although it was ultimately blocked at the House Judiciary Committee. When Heitkamp, a Democrat, lost reelection, her Republican colleague Lisa Murkowski of Alaska reintroduced the bill on her behalf.
The bill is named for 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was brutally murdered in 2017, just weeks before she was due to give birth. Her body was found in the Red River, in North Dakota. Upstream, in Manitoba, just a few years earlier, the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found in the river. Her death also sparked national outrage and built momentum for the Canadian national inquiry.
White said a problem she faces constantly is investigators’ reflexive willingness to chalk up the deaths of indigenous peoples as nonsuspicious or suicides, even when the signs point to foul play. It’s a problem spelled out in the national inquiry.
The inquiry cites the example of Amber Alyssa Tuccaro, a 20-year-old mother from the Mikisew Cree Nation. When her family tried to report her missing, police resisted, “telling her mother that she may be out partying,” the report notes. It took a month for police to open a missing persons investigation. Her body was not found until 2012, two years after she disappeared. Her homicide remains unsolved.
Even as this work continues to highlight these problems, indigenous women and girls are still being killed or disappearing. White underscored that indigenous men also face disproportionate levels of violence and need to be included in the conversation.
“This is the rage. This is the anger. This is the frustration,” she said.
As we discussed the issue, White sent along missing persons posters for both women and men. One for Rosenda Sophia Strong: mother of four, black hair, brown eyes, 31 years old, 5 feet tall, missing since Oct. 2, 2018, last seen on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon. Another poster for Austin Forrest Pevo, black hair, brown eyes, 5 feet 8 inches, 23 years old, last seen on Feb. 3, 2018, on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in Idaho. One for 14-year-old Henny Scott, who disappeared in 2018: “Our sister is missing,” it reads. The poster has been updated with an overlay reading, “Found deceased. RIP Henny Scott.”
Scott’s death remains unexplained.
Correction, June 26, 2019: Then-North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp introduced Savanna’s Act in 2017. A previous version of this article misstated the state Heitkamp represented in the Senate.