On Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with the Assembly of First Nations to lay out his government's plan for restoring its tattered relationship with Indigenous people. Speaking in Ottawa to chiefs and community leaders, he described the need for a "a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples, one that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation."
By noon, the ministers of Indigenous Affairs, Justice, and Status of Women—all women, one of them Indigenous—stood in the foyer of Parliament Hill to launch what is surely the crown jewel of the plan: the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Families and activists have been calling for national attention into the startling rates on Indigenous victimization in Canada for years. While homicide rates have been falling nation-wide since 1990, the proportion of Indigenous female victims has risen—from 14 percent to 21 percent this year. In an echo of the Black Lives Matter movement, the names of each new victim has become emblematic of the systemic tragedy: Rinelle Harper, Tina Fontaine, Loretta Saunders, Cindy Gladue. These deaths often go under-investigated, as though the risk factor of being an Indigenous woman is explanation enough.
Under Stephen Harper's rule, there was steadfast resistance to calling an inquiry. Conservatives often invoked what Americans might recognize as the black-on-black crime explanation: the idea that most crimes against marginalized people are committed by marginalized offenders. Former Conservative minister of the Status of Women Kellie Leitch suggested that 91 percent of Aboriginal women are killed by an partner or acquaintance, likely Aboriginal. (This statistic has recently challenged in an in-depth analysis by the Toronto Star.) The less-than-subtle implication is that "these people" are simply killing each other. It's a classic denial of structural inequality, found in the heartless conservative handbook alongside "Poor People Are Lazy" and "She Was Asking For It."
The most notable aspect of Tuesday's announcement was the change in language from those not-so-distant Harper days.
Tuesday's event began with a recognition from each speaker that Parliament stands on "the traditional territory of the Algonquin people." This practice, standard in much of Western Canada, has yet to become part of Canadian political discourse more broadly. While it may seem like a basic politically correct gesture, it isn't. It's a reminder that our presence is what we call Canada remains in many ways unresolved — it's supposed to be unsettling, not comforting. (The Capital Region is currently involved in treaty negotiations with the Algonquins of Ottawa, which makes this statement less empty gesture, than legal reality.)
Clearly, the Liberals want to get the tone right. The inquiry refers to "Indigenous" rather than "Aboriginal" women, reflecting the current, less exclusive preferred nomenclature in the post-Idle No More era. The MMIW inquiry website even includes a trigger warning.
So what are we to make of this? Or as Manitoba Treaty Commissioner Jamie Wilson aptly put it, "What happens when the dog finally catches the car?"
For years, MMIW was a pointed, hashtag-able stick to poke into the side of the our government. The unwillingness to properly acknowledge this problem was the most blatant confirmation that, to paraphrase, Stephen Harper didn't care about Indigenous people. The previous minister of Aboriginal Affairs literally wouldn't stand up for the idea of an inquiry.
Now that we have it, some will surely wonder whether an inquiry is actually what we want, or need. Indeed, the press period of the inquiry launch was dominated by questions about whether the racist Indian Act will be repealed and about the fate of the bitterly contested First Nations Financial Transparency Act. Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould and Minister for Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett fielded these handily if curtly, attempting to turn the attention back to the issue of violence against Indigenous women.
It's a rather curious statement on politics that the issue that was so impossible for our government to acknowledge suddenly seems like a smokescreen. Or maybe after so many years of regarding our government with deep cynicism and suspicion, it's hard to believe that anything good can come out of Ottawa.
A year ago, Kwakwaka'wakw UBC professor Sarah Hunt wrote, "An inquiry will only help if it has action attached and if it shifts power into the hands of indigenous women, meaning it is led by indigenous women."
Yesterday, she urged Indigenous academics to turn media requests to the families of missing and murdered women, girls and two-spirited people. "Reaching out to families of #MMIWG2S today instead of giving my 2 cents online. Centering families is something we can all do," she tweeted.
Wondering whether we want an inquiry begs the question of who "we" are. Indigenous women, families and communities have been demanding this inquiry for a long time. Sandra Lockhart, an indigenous women's advocate in Yellowknife, told CBC that she is heartened by the process so far.
"It's starting the right way, it's talking to us first," she said.
Minister Bennett closed the inquiry launch with a remark that was at once extraordinary and banal. "Both racism and sexism are a huge part of this," she said. "We need to hear those stories such that Canadians really understand that racism and sexism in this country kills."
No mention of the mutually constitutive relationship between heteropatriarchy, white supremacy and colonialism — but just hearing words like 'racism' and 'sexism' from Canada's ruling government sure feels like an improvement.
Follow Mayana C. Slobodian on Twitter.