The final report of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women calls for an overhaul of the way police handle such cases after commissioners determined the disappearances and deaths of thousands of women and girls over decades constitute a genocide.
The National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls also says all Canadians have a responsibility to “confront and speak out” against racism, sexism and homophobia wherever it occurs. After nearly three years of information gathering, the commission is preparing to release its 231 recommendations in a 1,200-page report – titled Reclaiming Power and Place – at a special ceremony on Monday morning in Gatineau.
Chief among its findings is that the violence being perpetrated against First Nations, Inuit and Métis is the result of a race-based genocide of Indigenous peoples.
The commissioners acknowledge there is much debate over the meaning of genocide. But they rely on the writings of scholars and the testimonies of witnesses to conclude the violence against Indigenous people in Canada fits the definition in both legal and social terms.
“Many Indigenous people have grown up normalized to violence, while Canadian society shows an appalling apathy to addressing the issue,” write the commissioners.
The $54-million inquiry received information from more than 2,380 people and heard the stories of 468 family members of victims and survivors in hearings around the country. The report is the result of two years and eight months of work on the part of the commission, which was beset with problems.
Indigenous women and girls have been dying and disappearing at alarming rates for years, but it was the 2014 killing of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine that catalyzed the issue squarely onto the national agenda. Her case – coupled with an unprecedented RCMP report, released that same year, that found there were 1,181 police-reported cases of homicides and long-term disappearances involving Indigenous women and girls between 1980 and 2012 – galvanized Indigenous leaders toward a national inquiry and increased pressure on various levels of government to act.
For all the hopes and goals associated with the inquiry, the woman who raised Tina said the contents of the report are moot. Nearly five years since the Sagkeeng First Nation teen’s death in Winnipeg, not enough has changed, said Thelma Favel, Tina’s great-aunt.
“[Tina] was at the centre of all this,” Ms. Favel said in a recent phone interview from her home in rural Manitoba. “Everything was supposed to change: No more missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. But it’s still happening. It hurts really bad.”
The federal government appointed five commissioners when the inquiry began its work in September, 2016, after years of lobbying by Indigenous organizations and others. But Marilyn Poitras, a Métis professor at the University of Saskatchewan, resigned after 10 months saying she objected to the way the inquiry was structured.
Staff turnover was high. It took a long time for the commissioners to hear their first witnesses. Some of the families of missing and murdered women withdrew their support, citing a lack of communication and insufficient ceremonial protocols. Some were frustrated the inquiry did not have the power to force police to open cold cases to find out what happened to their loved ones.
And the federal government rejected the inquiry’s request for a two-year extension.
But Marion Buller, a B.C. judge who served as chief commissioner, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail last week that she is proud of the final result. And Justice Buller said the international attention the inquiry has drawn to the issue will mean pressure “not only from inside Canada but from outside Canada as well” to act to end the violence.
While the report says the genocide targets all Indigenous peoples, it says the violence is especially directed at Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual) people. “No one knows an exact number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people in Canada,” the report says. “Thousands of women’s deaths or disappearances have likely gone unrecorded over the decades.”
The commissioners make 231 recommendations. They touch on a wide range of issues including human rights, culture, health, justice, media, the transportation and hospitality industries, educators, social workers and resource-development industries.
Among the recommendations for police, the commissioners say there must be more communication between officers and the families of victims, more Indigenous representation on forces, and standard protocols to ensure the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women are thoroughly investigated.
The commissioners call on governments – federal, provincial, territorial, municipal and Indigenous – to implement a national action plan to address violence against Indigenous women that includes “measurable goals and necessary resources dedicated to capacity building, sustainability, and long-term solutions.”
And all Canadians, they say, must “confront and speak out against racism, sexism, ignorance, homophobia, and transphobia, and teach or encourage others to do the same, wherever it occurs: in your home, in your workplace, or in social settings.”
The commissioners themselves were not available Sunday to discuss the report. Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, declined to comment until the document has been officially released.
Maggie Cywink – from the Whitefish River First Nation in Northern Ontario whose sister, Sonya Cywink, was found slain near London in 1994 – has been among the most vocal of the critics of the commission.
“This inquiry has only reproduced knowledge that families and grassroots have know for decades,” she said in a statement on Sunday after seeing the report.
“We have always known the murders and disappearances has been one form of genocide. They have failed to produce anything that is of benefit to us … and that is because they failed to involve grassroots, women incarcerated, sex industry workers, homeless women and youth and allies in their process.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect first name for Marion Buller, the chief commissioner of the National Inquiry in Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. This version has been corrected.