Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Lorelei Williams, second left, whose cousin Tanya Holyk was murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton and aunt Belinda Williams went missing in 1978, wipes away tears while seated with Rhiannon Bennett, from left to right, Sophie Merasty and Summer Rain Bentham, after responding to the report on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The head of the commission that investigated the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women says testimony from victims’ families led her to the “inescapable conclusion” that a genocide is being perpetrated against Canada’s First Peoples.

The federal government, which ordered the inquiry, pledged to act on its recommendations but did not endorse that key finding of the commission’s final report.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which was tasked with uncovering the systemic causes of the violence, released the 1,200-page document in an emotional ceremony at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau on Monday that included hundreds of family members of women who have been killed or vanished.

Chief Commissioner Marion Buller told the crowd that the Canadian state has deliberately and systemically violated racial, gender, human and Indigenous rights. That was “designed,” Ms. Buller said, “to displace Indigenous peoples from their lands, social structures and governance, to eradicate their existence as nations and communities, families and individuals, [and] is the cause of the disappearances, murders and violence experienced by Indigenous women, girls, and [two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual] people.”

“This is genocide,” said Ms. Buller, a Cree and a member of the Mistawasis First Nation in Saskatchewan who was the first Indigenous woman appointed as a Provincial Court judge in British Columbia.

“Based on the evidence that we heard and read,” she later told reporters, “it was an inescapable conclusion.”

Opinion: We failed to treat missing and murdered Indigenous women like people, but I know we can change

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was handed a copy of the massive report toward the end of the ceremony, promised that his government would not allow the 231 recommendations – which the inquiry terms “calls to justice” – to sit on a shelf.

“We will conduct a thorough review of this report and we will develop and implement a national action plan to address violence against Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ and two-spirit people,” the Prime Minister said.

“The commission has outlined the way forward,” Mr. Trudeau said. “You have my word that my government will turn the inquiry’s calls to justice into real, meaningful, Indigenous-led action.”

Mr. Trudeau did not use the word “genocide” when speaking in Ottawa, despite being directly asked to do so in a call from the crowd. But late Monday afternoon in Vancouver, he did so at the opening plenary of the international Women Deliver conference.

“Earlier this morning, the national inquiry formally presented their final report, in which they found that the tragic violence that Indigenous women and girls experienced amounts to genocide,” the Prime Minister said to applause from the crowd.

The Prime Minister’s Office said the government accepted the finding of “cultural genocide” in the 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Carolyn Bennett, the federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, and David Lametti, the Justice Minister, would not endorse the finding of genocide after the ceremony.

“We’re going to leave the actual use of the term ‘genocide’ to academics and experts,” Mr. Lametti said.

“What we have said today is we have a responsibility to the people … to the survivors, to the families of the women and girls who have gone missing or have been murdered. We have a responsibility for fixing the problem.”

Ms. Buller, on the other hand, said the government’s acknowledgment of a genocide is unimportant.

“We don’t need to hear the word ‘genocide’ come out of the Prime Minister’s mouth,” she said, “because the families have told us, the survivors have told us, their truths.”

The massive report makes recommendations on such diverse topics as culture, health, human rights, transportation, media and policing. It includes, for instance, a call for a “guaranteed annual livable income for all Canadians,” and for all governments to prevent the apprehension of children based on poverty or cultural bias.

The report’s calls for justice are much more expansive than the TRC’s 94 calls to action. And, with a federal election scheduled for the fall, it will be difficult for the Liberal government to make substantive progress toward implementing them.

But Commissioner Qajaq Robinson, a non-Indigenous woman from Nunavut, said there is much Mr. Trudeau and his ministers can do in the short term. Specifically, she said, the government could end gender discrimination in the Indian Act, invest in victims’ services and begin to change its own policies and protocols.

Many family members of victims waited decades for an inquiry, and they were anxious and emotional at the release of its findings. Some broke down in tears on the stage when asked to read one of the calls for justice.

Laurie Odjick, whose teenage daughter Maisy went missing from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation in Quebec in September, 2008, said she hoped the report would “open the eyes of Canada to finally listen and finally see” the violence that is taking place against Indigenous women and girls. “I know we as families won’t let them forget. And we are going to keep fighting for justice.”

Sharon McIvor, a lawyer and activist and member of the Lower Nicola Indian Band in British Columbia, is among those who have been calling for an inquiry for decades. “To have [the report] released today, and it’s actually a reality, is something I didn’t think I would see,” Ms. McIvor said at a news conference in Vancouver.

She said she supports the use of the term “genocide,” saying government laws and policies resulted in Indigenous women being treated as lesser human beings.

“If you want to get rid of their people, you have to get rid of their women,” she said.

Lorelei Williams, the founder of the dance group Butterflies in Spirit, paid tribute to the women and families who testified before the inquiry. The DNA of her cousin, Tanya Holek, was found on the farm of serial killer Robert Pickton.

“Canadians need to stop being racist and being in denial about the genocide of our people,” Ms. Williams said.

“All of the systems are against us, to this day.”

Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said that, between the residential-school system and the history of the Indian Act, there is no question there has been a genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

“It takes some time for people to get it, that this is really the truth,” Mr. Bellegarde said.

Murray Sinclair, the senator who was the head of the TRC, said the cultural genocide found by his commission is just one aspect of the crime against humanity.

The residential schools, and violence against Indigenous women and girls, “was all part of that overall approach to eliminating Indigenous people from the land and to take their culture away from them and to drive them away from their communities,” Mr. Sinclair said. A dialogue around reconciliation is not possible unless people know what they are reconciling, he said, and genocide “is part of what we have to reconcile.”

With a report from Andrea Woo.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe