The national commission investigating the root causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls came to the conclusion this week that Canada is engaged in "nothing less than [a] deliberate, often covert campaign of genocide.”
Those are the words of the chief commissioner, Marion Buller, who was the first Indigenous woman appointed as a Provincial Court judge in British Columbia.
She was not speaking metaphorically: Ms. Buller and her commission are accusing Canada of being in the act of committing one of the most reviled crimes in history. That has inevitably turned the release of their report into a legal and linguistic debate that will do nothing to improve the lives of Indigenous women and girls.
But it’s a debate that has to be had, because the commission’s accusation of a continuing genocide doesn’t ring true.
Let’s take the finding to its conclusion. Is the commission saying that the deaths of the 38 Indigenous women who, according to Statistics Canada, died by homicide in 2017 should be investigated under Canada’s Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, the law governing genocide?
And is there evidence that the federal government is criminally complicit in those deaths, and that the homicides were “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, an identifiable group of persons”?
If that seems ridiculous, it’s because the charge of a continuing genocide in Canada is absurd. It simply does not bear scrutiny in 2019.
While Ottawa often moves too slowly to address the many interlinked issues facing Indigenous people – higher rates of poverty and incarceration than non-Indigenous populations, lower rates of high-school completion, a disproportionate likelihood of being the victim of a violent crime, over-representation in foster homes, subpar living conditions on reserves – the policy of the federal government for at least two decades has been one of reconciliation and redress.
Since the 1990s, Canadian governments of all political stripes have commissioned multiple reports on the challenges facing Indigenous Canada, searching for solutions. It is an accepted fact that the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canada must be closed. It is the key issue for securing our common future.
Since 2006, Canada’s Indigenous population has grown by 42.5 per cent, more than four times the rest of the country’s growth rate. In 2008, the Harper government apologized on behalf of the government for the residential school system that stole children from their parents and which is the direct cause of much of the trauma suffered by Indigenous people today. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a similar apology to Indigenous peoples in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2017, and he leads a government that has made reconciliation a top priority.
Ms. Buller and her commissioners are welcome to litigate an accusation of genocide by Canadian governments in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in part of the 20th. They might even win their case.
But it would be wrong to further argue that, because Canada has not moved quickly enough to undo the harm its governments caused in the past, and because racist attitudes persist among some people, that this country is, at this very moment, pursuing a policy of genocide against Indigenous people.
Perhaps Canadians are supposed to gracefully accept a dubious genocide charge as a show of contrition for the undeniable sins of the past. That Ottawa has abandoned the pernicious policies of the last century doesn’t erase the reality that too many Indigenous people lag badly behind their non-Indigenous counterparts, and need immediate help.
The issue investigated by the commission is a case in point. Indigenous women and girls are five-and-a-half times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous ones. Since the 1960s, many have gone missing, their disappearances never solved.
Part of the problem has been a lackadaisical attitude by police investigators, and the ill-informed belief by past governments that the murders and disappearances were merely a police matter, and not linked to the social ills faced by Indigenous women and Indigenous communities.
That was and is wrong. But it doesn’t amount to evidence of a continuing genocide. Words matter, especially when spoken by a judge.
Editor’s note This editorial has been modified to reflect the following correction: Indigenous women and girls are five-and-a-half times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous ones, not four times more likely as previously stated.