Canadian Inquiry Demands Justice for Genocide of Indigenous Women and Girls

June 4, 2019

Dr. Pamela Palmater of Ryerson University says PM Justin Trudeau had an opportunity to take the lead on the recommendations of the inquiry, but he didn’t. She has no confidence that the political will exists to end the genocide against Indigenous women and girls.

“This colonialism, this discrimination, and this genocide explains the high rates of violence against indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA [two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual people]—an absolute paradigm shift is required to dismantle colonialism in Canadian society,” said Marion Buller, the chief commissioner of an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada at a ceremony presenting the report. “And this paradigm shift must come from all levels of government and public institutions.”

The 1200-page report includes 231 steps that need to be taken by the government and Canadian institutions in order to end the genocide against Indigenous women and girls. It arrived after indigenous women and girls have been murdered, disappeared, gone missing, exploited, traded, and abused for decades. It has taken decades of activists calling attention to the plight of Indigenous women for the Canadian government to hold an inquiry.

“Through the persistence of these Indigenous women and families and human rights allies we got a national inquiry,” Mi'kmaq lawyer, professor, activist and politician Pamela Palmater told The Real News Network's Sharmini Peries. “It was really a long time coming—more than most people know.”

In 2015, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report about the abuses in residential schools recommended an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women. Families of victims and human rights activists also reached out to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and various United Nations human rights treaties bodies for recommendations and calls for an inquiry.

Palmater praised the report's specificity, with its 200-plus recommendations, detailing some examples of the report's suggestions: “They also came to the conclusion that the judicial system has failed to hold Canada to account. So they want to make changes to Canada's judicial system and to empower First Nations, for example, to have their own laws and their own systems and their own policing to account for what Canada's not doing. And they also came to the conclusion that one of the root causes of why we have this genocide in Canada is because Canada not only fails to uphold the basic human rights of Indigenous women and girls, but they purposely breach it.”

Despite the report's clear recommendations and strong words from Buller, its chief commissioner, who demanded involvement “from all levels of government and public institutions,” Palmater explained that promises have already been broken when it comes to reckoning with this genocide.

“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had an opportunity to be a world leader here and say, 'When it comes to genocide denial is the worst thing that you can do. You need to assume responsibility take full accountability and and let the chips fall where they may and work towards healing.' He didn't do that,” Palmater said. “He stepped around it and there are people in the crowd actually yelling out while he was speaking saying, 'Say genocide, say genocide.' And he didn't do it.”

Palmater explained that all that stops Canada from acting fully on the recommendations is the Canadian government itself, which so far has not lived up to its promises.

“In terms of confidence, I have every confidence that federal provincial, territorial, and municipal governments have enough capacity, resources, and ability to implement the steps that are needed to end the genocide in Canada,” Palmater said. “But my confidence is not so high that there's the political will to do so. And the reason why I say that is because all along the government said, 'Don't worry, we're not going to wait for the final report to take action on what's happening against indigenous women and girls.' But they didn't [take action].”


Canadian Inquiry Demands Justice for Genocide of Indigenous Women and Girls

Story Transcript

CHIEF JUSTICE MARION BULLER I want to start, as I was taught by an elder in Saskatchewan, to acknowledge the spirits of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and to welcome them. The significant, persistent, and deliberate pattern of systemic racial and gendered human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses is hte cause of the disappearances, murders, and violence, and this is genocide.

SHARMINI PERIES And that was Chief Justice Marion Buller. She is the Chief Justice of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The inquiry has delivered its report to the Indigenous communities, to Canadians, and the Prime Minister of Canada. The report includes 231 steps that need to be taken by the government and Canadian institutions in order to end the genocide against Indigenous women and girls according to this final report. Joining me now to discuss the report is Dr. Pamela Palmater. Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nations, currently holding the position of Chair in the Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. Pamela, good to have you here.

DR. PAMELA PALMATER Thanks for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES And I should also highlight that Pamela has a book which is called Indigenous Nationhood: Empowering Grassroots Citizens, which is a collection of blogs she has written over time. I thank you so much for joining us today on this very special occasion.

DR. PAMELA PALMATER I’m a big fan of your show.

SHARMINI PERIES Thank you, Pamela. Pamela, the report was a long time coming. So let’s begin by giving people an orientation to the backstory here, and why and how this report came about.

DR. PAMELA PALMATER Well, I mean, the backstory really is that, you know, for decades and decades, Indigenous women and girls have been murdered, disappeared, gone missing, been exploited, traded, and abused in all sorts of ways. We have been trying to get the government’s attention to address this and they wouldn’t, literally for decades. But through the persistence of all of the families of the murder victims, and all of the Indigenous women activists, and our human rights allies, we just kept pushing. Not only in Canada, but we pushed on the international level at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at the various United Nations human rights treaties bodies, to continue to get recommendations and calls to action to have an inquiry. Finally, we had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report about the abuses in residential schools that came out in 2015. One of the recommendations there was to actually have an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women. So finally, through the persistence of these Indigenous women, families, and human rights allies, we got a national inquiry. So, it was really a long time coming, more than most people know.

SHARMINI PERIES All right. Pamela, give us a sense of what it took to do this inquiry. Of course, it evoked so many memories, and so many people coming forth and having to provide testimonies of what had happened to their family members. Give us a sense of the, you know, emotional weight this has placed on the community and, of course, the experiences people went through in bringing about this report.

DR. PAMELA PALMATER Well it’s—I mean, imagine all of your worst traumas that no one has recognized for decades, all of your losses, you know, severe violence and deaths of your loved ones, and having to constantly relive that, and relive that just to get to this point of having an inquiry. Then, to have to share that with an inquiry for the purposes of trying to get justice. It was extremely hard on many of the family members, on all of the communities that are impacted, and even the leaders had a hard time with the sheer number of it. I don’t think many people realize just how widespread this was. And so, you have a scenario where many of the very same people who went through the trauma of residential schools, or they’re families of those who were died or murdered in residential schools, they had to go through that for the truth and reconciliation commission for that report. Some of them are of the very same families who also came forward for this. So, it really speaks to the strength, resilience, and determination of all of these indigenous families who, despite their own trauma and pain, really put justice for their lost loved ones ahead of all of that, and continued to participate in this so that all Canadians would know, but more important than awareness, so that governments would be held to account and be forced to take action.

SHARMINI PERIES All right. Now, Pamela, this report was obviously written with 230 recommendations, steps to be taken by the government and its institutions to correct the wrongs that have taken place for so long now. In that vein, the report was actually presented to Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada. Let’s listen to his response to being presented with the report.

PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU The work of the commissioners, the stories they have collected, and the calls for justice they have put forward, will not be placed on a shelf to collect dust. I know— [crowd applauds] I know, and you know that we need to fix the way things work in this country.

SHARMINI PERIES All right. Pamela, your confidence in the government to carry out the recommendations that have been made? I know, very eloquently, the report calls it “steps” that need to be taken. Tell us about why that terminology was chosen and then, of course, whether you have any confidence that this government will address the issues identified in those steps.

DR. PAMELA PALMATER Well, in terms of confidence, I have every confidence that federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments have enough capacity, resources, and ability to implement the steps that are needed to end the genocide in Canada, but my confidence is not so high that there’s the political will to do so. The reason why I say that is because all along the government said, don’t worry. We’re not going to wait for the final report to take action on what’s happening against Indigenous women and girls, but they didn’t. Here’s the other sign that’s really, really troubling. So, the Truth and Reconciliation Report concluded that what happened in residential schools and indeed other policies in Canada, were in fact genocide. This report did not only hear from the families, hear all the testimonies, they heard from expert witnesses and then they did their own independent legal analysis and research on whether what happened in Canada was genocide. And they said, undoubtedly, their legal finding in fact was that it was genocide.

As you know, state perpetrators of genocide around the world rarely ever admit that a genocide has occurred and they’re literally, dragged, you know, they’re taken kicking and screaming to accountability forums until they’re forced to account for what they’ve done. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had an opportunity to be a world leader here and say, when it comes to genocide, denial is the worst thing that you can do. You need to assume responsibility, take full accountability, and let the chips fall where they may, and work towards healing. He didn’t do that. He stepped around it and there were people in the crowd actually yelling out while he was speaking saying, “say genocide, say genocide,” and he didn’t do it. So, he didn’t take the steps to show that Canada is different from other world leaders that have engaged in genocide. That worries me about whether Canada has the political will to do the substantive work, not the cherry picking on the outside with the easy recommendations, but the real hard work of ending genocide in Canada.

SHARMINI PERIES All right. Let’s talk a little bit about the sweeping recommendations that the panel made in this report. Give us some highlights of what that looks like.

DR. PAMELA PALMATER Well, what I really like about this report is that they tie their findings to the recommendations in a very, very specific way. So, for example, you know they’re finding about genocide. You know, they also came to the conclusion that the judicial system has failed to hold Canada to account. They want to make changes to Canada’s judicial system and to empower First Nations; for example, to have their own laws, their own systems, and their own policing to account for what Canada’s not doing. They also came to the conclusion that one of the root causes of why we have this genocide in Canada is because Canada not only fails to uphold the basic human rights of Indigenous women and girls, but they purposely breach it so state actors— like police officials who engage in sexualized violence against Indigenous women and girls, or participate in human trafficking, child porn rings, all of those things. State actors involved in it, haven’t been held to account.

So, one of their recommendations is, of course, that not only domestic human rights be upheld for Indigenous women and girls, but all of the international mechanisms that Canada has signed onto, and that moving forward, it has to be on a human rights framework. That is completely significant and then there’s ones that, you know, you would think, why haven’t they done this before? They said another one of the root causes is the sex discrimination in the Indian Act that excludes Indigenous women and children from membership in their home communities. This entitles them to treaty rights and critical social programs. They’re saying, you need to get rid of sex discrimination in the Indian Act. Well, that should be a no-brainer because Canada has, like, hundreds of equality laws, human rights laws, multiculturalism policies, sex equality— except for Indigenous women and girls, so they have an opportunity. They could literally change that law tomorrow. That would be an easy thing to do. It’s a no-brainer thing to do, but Canada’s been very resistant even to take those small steps to address the crisis. But what I like about the report is that they tie their findings to these recommendations and show, you know, even though this is comprehensive and large-scale, there’s lots of things we can do in a staged approach.

SHARMINI PERIES All right. Now, speaking of a staged approach, I know when these kinds of reports come out, there’s a lot of fanfare and recognition and so on, even in Justin Trudeau’s words there. He says it will not be swept under the carpet or gathering dust, he says. Now, my experience of having done the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System in Canada, and I served as the Executive Director, the report was shelved. Nobody took a look at it, you know, years later. I think it might be in some law libraries, but that’s about it. [laughs] So, Pamela, how do you plan to actually do further education, take this report on the road? I know you’re speaking at UBC today right after this interview, but we have to keep it alive. How do you plan to do that?

DR. PAMELA PALMATER Well, I mean, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I mean, every other commission and inquiry we’ve had before, be it large-scale or local, the recommendations sit there. They gather. We now have thousands of recommendations. And like I said before, the governments, if they even look at it at all, cherry pick around the outside for the easy things to do— superficial, not substantive. And so, what we’re saying is, you know, let’s use what got us to this point to force Canada to move forward and actually implement these recommendations. So, keep up with the public education. Keep up with the international pressure. We really do think that, you know, the international voice is extremely important in all of this. And so, we need to break it up into pieces that make it easier for both Canadians to understand and support us, but also, the younger generation.

I mean, part of my plan is to continue to use things like YouTube, blogs, podcasting, and community-based events to really talk about, here’s what everybody can do to force governments, to put pressure on governments, to make sure that this stops because we’re not even talking about a historical event, and that’s another misunderstanding. We’re not talking about a genocide from 200 years ago. We’re talking about ongoing, so all of the lives of these women and girls are still very much at risk, and we need to act now. I think the main message is, the reason why it was so important to call it genocide is because we need a national emergency-coordinated action plan to address it at that same level. And so, we’re hoping, you know, with this election coming up, that all parties will make that a focus of their platforms going forward, and that Canadians won’t let them do anything but be held accountable.

SHARMINI PERIES And, Pamela, we’ll certainly play our role as the media in keeping that alive and keeping the recommendations of this report very much on the surface. We’d love to have you back to do that, so thank you so much for joining us today.

DR. PAMELA PALMATER Thank you. The media is an important partner.

SHARMINI PERIES And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.