“Tough Truths”: The Importance of the use of “Genocide” in the MMIWG Final Report

Law & Theory Mar 08, 2020

By Anna Sixsmith

On June 3rd, 2019, the Canadian National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) released their highly anticipated Final Report. This long-awaited investigation into the oppression of Indigenous women in Canada marked a significant date for the larger Indigenous Rights movement in North America. This National Inquiry was truly the first ever “national” Inquiry, with mandates from every single province and territory. The report serves as a living, breathing collection of truths and lived experiences from over 2,300 Indigenous peoples, one that was carefully constructed to be family-first, trauma-informed, and decolonizing. Perhaps one of the most significant truths coming of the Report, found in its preface, is that the treatment of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ peoples in Canada amounts to, “deliberate race, identity, and gender-based genocide”. This choice of wording elicited unfounded backlash from colonial voices, but represented an important truth, a feat of activism, and a source of power for Indigenous communities.

Guided and synthesized by a majority-Indigenous Board of Commissioners, the MMIWG Final Report remains a landmark, a first of its kind in establishing that the Canadian state has committed horrible atrocities against Indigenous women for the better part of the last 500 years. It’s precursor, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Final Report of 2015, also asserted that Indigenous people had suffered a “genocide”, however, the TRC Report discusses how this purported “cultural” genocide differs from physical or biological genocide, and does not situate this genocide in the context of Canadian law, past or present. The MMIWG Report, on the other hand, decisively asserts that their claims of genocide encompass all dimensions of the term as it is classically understood; the Report is accompanied by a Supplementary Report on Genocide (SRG) that discusses the usage of the term in an Indigenous context.

It’s here, in the unapologetic and steadfast claim that the Canadian government has and continues to commit genocide against Indigenous women and girls, where a great majority of the criticism against the Final Report began to crop up. Numerous news outlets published articles and opinion pieces asserting that the use of “genocide” was inappropriate, disrespectful, incorrect, unwarranted, ad infinitum. Conservative politicians such as Andrew Scheer and Don Morgan publicly spoke against the use of “genocide” in the report. The Kirsch Institute, a governmental organization of legal experts, published a piece that claimed that the situation facing Indigenous women and 2SLGBTQQIA+ peoples did not constitute “genocide” as it is technically defined, and that using it in an Indigenous context was “legally problematic”.

These criticisms and other similar censures of the MMIWG Report manipulate the solemn social connotations of the word “genocide” ​—​ the grievous links it has to some of humanity’s greatest tragedies such as the Holocaust, Rwanda, and others ​—​ to downplay the importance of the Final Report’s findings, and to preserve a positive image of the Canadian government and Canada as a whole. Claiming that the Final Report was fallacious in using the term “genocide” is part of the greater political and social agenda of the settler state, one that aims to preserve the legitimacy of the state and its positive image. However, these arguments stand on weak ground, as the treatment of Indigenous women by Canada checks almost every box in the original international definitions of “genocide”.

The inventor of the term “genocide”, Raphael Lemkin, wrote in 1946 that a genocide was, “the criminal intent to destroy or cripple permanently a human group”. For Lemkin personally, the cultural destruction of a group was an essential part of “genocide”, and not a lesser or secondary form of one. With all of the well-documented attempts of the Canadian government, from first European contact all the way to Pierre Trudeau’s attempt at forced assimilation with his 1969 White Paper, to dismantle Indigenous Nations and to strip Indigenous people of their culture, it’s inaccurate to say that Canadian treatment of Indigenous women and girls doesn’t fit the original definition of “genocide”.

Reactions to the Final Report’s use of “genocide” have been criticized because it would mean that, “the Canadian government has and is actively seeking the total elimination of Indigenous women”. But the term was originally coined to describe an intention, or an act of elimination whether “total” or partial. Indeed, to claim that the Final Report’s use of this term, compared to use in other contexts (such as that of the Holocaust) somehow depreciates the term directly contradicts its inventor, a Jewish lawyer who himself fled Nazi terror in Poland (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2019).

Furthermore, in 1948, when the world was still reeling from horror of the Holocaust, the United Nations’ ​Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defined a genocide as any in a series of acts “committed with intent to destroy...a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group”, including killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions of life meant to bring about destruction of the group, imposing measures intending to prevent births, and forcibly transferring children of the group away.

As such, the conditions imposed on Indigenous people by the Canadian government also fit into this definition. Unlawful killings and beatings of Indigenous peoples happen every day and go unprosecuted: in 2018, an independent police investigator published a report that disparaged the Thunder Bay Police Service for inadequacy and neglect in at least nine cases of missing or murdered Indigenous people. This is just one of many examples. Many Indigenous women, on and off reserve, that rely on the Canadian government are made to live in insufficient housing, with highly constricted access to basic necessities like food, clean drinking water and healthcare. Moreover, the historical sexism of the ​Indian Act,​ which erased official Indian status for women based on who they married, directly attempted to alienate women from their bands or communities of birth, and make her dependant on her (white) husband.

The Canadian government imposed measures intended to prevent births, such as Alberta’s and then British Columbia’s versions of the ​Sexual Sterilization Act​, in place for 44 years and 40 years, respectively. There is no doubt that this genocidal action persists today: Saskatchewan is currently facing a class-action lawsuit from Indigenous women who allege being sterilized without consent. Finally, the transfer of children away from their homes has remained one of the most prominent fixtures of the Canadian government’s policy towards Indigenous communities, having and continuing to use brute force to take Indigenous children away from their families. According to Canada’s 2016 Census, Indigenous children made up only 7% of the total child population, but accounted for more than 50% of children in foster care. Past and present, Indigenous, Inuit, and Metis women and girls, as well as 2SLGBTQQIA+ peoples, have been the victims of policies and actions by settlers and their state government that, according to the United Nations, amounts to genocide.

This may be the true heart of the “genocide” debate surrounding the MMIWG Final Report: Canada’s colonial motivations for rejecting “genocide” as it relates to Indigenous women and girls becomes plain especially when one considers the international implications of a genocide. The United Nations’ ​Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a​s mentioned above, is a General Assembly resolution that binds signatory countries to prevent and punish acts of genocide during both war and peace times. Canada signed the resolution in 1949 and ratified it in 1952, as did many of the leading world nations at this time. Thus, Canada is bound by this resolution and is liable to international prosecution if an official investigation were to show that Canada did participate in or allow a genocide of Indigenous peoples. The more acceptance that the MMIWG’s Final Report gains in its claim that Indigenous women and girls are experiencing genocide, the more likely it is that the Canadian government could come to face serious consequences for their actions towards Indigenous peoples. This problematizes Canada’s self-asserted sovereignty; an investigation would inevitably acknowledge that Indigenous Nations are just that ​—​ nations ​—​ and were autonomous until the invasion and subsequent genocide by Europeans.

In sum, the findings of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) inquiry shed light on centuries of atrocity that Indigenous communities, and especially their women and 2SLGBTQQIA+ members, suffered under the “protection” of the Canadian government. “Genocide”, though a single, mere word, represents Indigenous power in its use. Its use in the Final Report amounts to Indigenous people claiming the word, and all of its highly serious social and moral implications, to describe what happened to them, their families, and their ancestors. This choice has engendered criticism and dismissal not from Indigenous voices, but from settler ones. The findings of this report and assertion of “genocide”, as MMIWG Commissioner Qajaq Robins called them, are “tough truths” that may make people uncomfortable ​—​ but they are truths, nonetheless.

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