A national inquiry into thousands of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada has declared the issue a “genocide” that continues today, and says Canadian society shows “an appalling apathy to addressing the issue.”
The national inquiry’s report, released Monday at a solemn ceremony in Ottawa, took more than two years to complete. It runs over 1,200 pages and makes 230 recommendations. The inquiry was a key election promise from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the 2015 election campaign. The physical report was presented to the prime minister during the ceremony.
"This is an uncomfortable day for Canada but it is an essential day," Trudeau said. To the families of the missing and murdered, he said, "We have failed you, but we will fail you no longer."
The report includes Indigenous people who identify as queer, stating, “We do know that thousands of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual) have been lost to the Canadian genocide to date.”
Between 1980 and 2012, nearly 1,200 Indigenous women and girls have disappeared or met a violent death, with the majority of homicides committed by an acquaintance or spouse, according to a 2014 review by the RCMP. An estimate by the Native Women’s Association of Canada put the number much higher: 4,000 cases. The national inquiry’s report says we may never know the true scope of the issue.
What we know for sure, the report states, is that women and girls who are Indigenous are facing “genocide” by way of “state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies.”
Explaining why they used the term genocide, the report’s authors refer to a quote by Polish-Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin, who was first to use the word in the lead up to the Second World War. “Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation,” Lemkin said. “It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”
“Colonial violence, as well as racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people, has become embedded in everyday life—whether this is through interpersonal forms of violence, through institutions like the health care system and the justice system, or in the laws, policies and structures of Canadian society,” the report states. “The result has been that many Indigenous people have grown up normalized to violence, while Canadian society shows an appalling apathy to addressing the issue. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls finds that this amounts to genocide.”
Bernadette Smith, a First Nations provincial MLA from Winnipeg, lost her sister Claudette Osborne when she vanished without a trace in 2008. After Osborne disappeared, Smith started Drag The Red, a group of Indigenous people and allies who drag hooks along the bottom of Winnipeg’s Red River in search of evidence and bodies of missing people.
Smith says police didn’t do enough to investigate her sister’s disappearance, and media coverage furthered apathy around missing Indigenous women.
“When she went missing the police took 10 days to investigate her case. When the headline came out it was ‘Aboriginal sex trade drug addicted woman missing.’ And that feeds into that narrative that it’s OK to do this to Indigenous women. Nobody will care because they’re Indigenous. That’s been the narrative throughout history: who cares about Indigenous people?”
Osborne had four children and a family who loved her, Smith said. She was raped at age 11, Smith said. “That set out a path for her that never should have happened.” At the time she went missing, she was going back to school to become a social worker.
“My sister deserved to live. We don’t know if she’s alive. She could walk through the door someday, but we don’t know that.”
Smith felt a range of emotions at the release of the report. She feels pain and anguish for families who lost loved ones, and she wonders if all 230 recommendations will be implemented, or if the report will gather dust on a shelf.
The report’s recommendations call on all Canadian institutions and every individual Canadian to act and speak out against the continued violence against Indigenous people. The recommendations target all levels of government, media, social influencers, academia, healthcare providers, the transportation and hospitality industries, police services, lawyers and law societies, educators, the child welfare system, resource extraction and development industries, correctional services, and all Canadians.
“The key is that all three levels of government need to develop action plans,” Smith said. “But government can’t do it on their own; Canadians need to shift that narrative as well.”
Vanessa Brooks lost her sister Tanya Brooks in 2009. The mother of five was murdered and her body was dumped in the basement window well of a Halifax elementary school. Just two months earlier, she had testified against a man who beat her so severely she nearly died. He pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, and was in jail when she was murdered two months later.
No one was ever charged in Brooks’ murder, leading her sister to question if police cared enough about her sister’s case. Being Indigenous and previously working in the sex trade changes how a person is treated, she said.
During the ceremony, Vanessa says she told Trudeau what happened to her sister and showed him a photo of Tanya. She said he was kind and considerate, and told her, “I’m sorry for your loss and pain.”
“There’s a small comfort in it. I told my truth to the person who needed to hear it.”
The inquiry was hampered by structural issues that led to a flurry of resignations in summer and fall 2017. A handful of staff quit, along with executive director Michele Moreau, director of community relations Waneek Horn-Miller, and commissioner Marilyn Poitras. In her resignation letter, Poitras said, “It is clear to me that I am unable to perform my duties as a commissioner with the process designed in its current structure.”
Osborne’s family decided not to testify in the national inquiry. They believe her story is sacred and they didn’t feel it was a safe place to share it. Smith said in Manitoba she saw families being rushed through their testimony and not receiving enough support through the re-traumatizing process.
Vanessa Brooks shared her sister’s story with the inquiry because she has daughters, nieces, and other women in her life and she wants to prevent them from experiencing violence. “Tanya made it to the national inquiry, and I couldn’t be prouder of that,” she said.
The inquiry provided a family liaison worker who she has leaned on for support, but she’s concerned that funding for that liaison person will be cut now that the inquiry is over.
Although the inquiry took two-and-a-half years to complete, the report says it wasn’t enough time and a request for a two-year extension was denied. “We acknowledge that we could not reach everyone,” the report states.
Asked what individual Canadians can do to help, Smith said, “there are lots of good things going on in communities uniting people against violence.” She said Canadians should ask themselves how they can force change and urged them not to be bystanders.
She said this is not an Indigenous issue, it’s a Canadian issue.
Brooks urged Canadians to read the inquiry’s recommendations and ask what they can do to help. She called on Canadians to show up at rallies and protests.
“We need Canadians to stand behind the Indigenous [people] of this country and say ‘we’ve got you’.”
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Note: This story was updated with comments from Vanessa Brooks.