The chief commissioner of the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) told survivors and families on Monday they have started to rewrite Canadian history.
The tragedy, former B.C. judge Marion Buller said, is a direct result of a “persistent and deliberate pattern of systemic racial and gendered human and Indigenous-rights violations and abuses, perpetuated historically and maintained today by the Canadian state, designed to displace Indigenous people from their lands, social structures and governments, and to eradicate their existence as nations, communities, families and individuals.”
WATCH: While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showed remorse and promised action, his failure to use the word “genocide” disappointed some. Mike Le Couteur explains.
“This,” she said to a growing chorus of cheers and applause in the grand hall of the Canadian Museum of History across the Ottawa River from Parliament, “is genocide.”
Buller said she and her three fellow commissioners are holding up a mirror to the country, reflecting what they heard from more than 2,300 people over two years of cross-country public hearings and work to gather evidence.
“Your truths cannot be unheard,” Buller told hundreds of people gathered in the museum to mark the release of the inquiry report, along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan.
A complete change is required to dismantle colonialism in Canadian society, said Buller, who is Cree from the Mistawasis First Nation in Saskatchewan.
WATCH: JWR reacts to the release of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report
“This paradigm-shift must come from all levels of government and public institutions,” she said.
“Ideologies and instruments of colonialism, racism and misogyny, both past and present, must be rejected.”
The report contains more than 200 recommendations to multiple levels of government. It calls the violence against First Nations, Metis and Inuit women and girls a form of “genocide” and a crisis “centuries in the making.”
“These abuses and violations have resulted in the denial of safety, security, and human dignity,” the report says.
WATCH: The release of the final report from Canada’s inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has brought some comfort to victims’ families. But as Heather Yourex-West reports, they’re now demanding action and justice.
Trudeau stopped short of calling the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls a genocide – despite being called upon to do so – when he spoke after accepting the report of the national public inquiry he called on the issue.
Instead, Trudeau said violence against Indigenous women and girls is “not a relic of Canada’s past” and the justice system has failed them.
“To this day, the safety, security, and dignity of Indigenous mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends are routinely threatened,” he said. “Time and again, we have heard of their disappearance, violence, or even death being labelled low priority or ignored.”
Trudeau said his government will conduct a thorough review of the report and will develop and implement a national action plan to address violence against Indigenous women, girls, and LGBTQ and two-spirit people.
After Monday’s ceremony, Buller said the commission does not need to hear the word “genocide” out of Trudeau’s mouth; it heard the truth from families and survivors.
It also has calls for action in areas including justice and health, including that health-service providers develop programs that could help young people recognize the signs of being targeted for exploitation.
The report, the culmination of a three-year effort often beset by controversy, delays and personnel problems, documents what Buller calls “important truths” – including that Canadian laws and institutions are themselves to blame for violating the human rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“I hope that knowing these truths will contribute to a better understanding of the real lives of Indigenous people and the violations of their human and Indigenous rights when they were targeted for violence,” Buller writes in the report.
She also makes a point to acknowledge potential criticisms.
“Skeptics will be fearful and will complain that the financial cost of rebuilding is too great, that enough has been done, that enough money has been spent,” Buller writes.
“To them I say, we as a nation cannot afford not to rebuild. Otherwise, we all knowingly enable the continuation of genocide in our own country.”
The steps necessary to “end and redress this genocide” must be no less monumental than the combination of systems and actions that have been used to “maintain colonial violence for generations,” the commissioners say.
The recommendations – framed in the report as “calls for justice” – include developing an effective response to human trafficking cases and sexual exploitation and violence, including in the sex industry. They are not optional, but constitute legal imperatives, the report says.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also at the inquiry’s final ceremony, saying violence against Indigenous women and girls is sadly not a relic of Canada’s past, and the justice system has failed them.
But he stopped short of calling the damage and death a genocide.
WATCH: ‘Listening’ is not enough, Indigenous woman says in wake of MMIWG report
“We have heard of their human rights being consistently and systemically violated,” Trudeau said. “It is shameful. It is absolutely unacceptable. And it must end.”
Additional calls include the need to establish a national Indigenous and human rights ombudsperson and a national Indigenous and human rights tribunal.
It also recommends the development of a national action plan to ensure equitable access to employment, housing, education, safety, and health care, as well as long-term funding for education programs and awareness campaigns related to violence prevention.
The report also strongly focuses on the need for actors in the justice system and in police services to acknowledge that the historical and current relationship with Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people has been largely defined by “colonialism, racism, bias, discrimination, and fundamental cultural and societal differences.”
WATCH: PM Trudeau accepts final MMIWG report at close of national inquiry
“We further call upon all police services and justice system actors to acknowledge that, going forward, this relationship must be based on respect and understanding, and must be led by, and in partnerships with, Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual) people.”
Missing and murdered Indigenous women are believed to number in the thousands in Canada, but the report says that despite the commission’s best efforts to quantify the extent of the tragedy, “no one knows an exact number.”
In 2005, the Native Women’s Association of Canada created a database that tracked cases and produced a 2010 report documenting 582 missing and murdered Indigenous women. In 2014, the RCMP released a national overview and pegged the number of cases between 1980 and 2012 at nearly 1,200. Other unverified estimates are far higher.
Responding to the conclusions is the responsibility not only of federal and provincial governments and law enforcement agencies, but all Canadians in both the immediate and long-term, the report says.
“Individuals, institutions, and governments can all play a part … We encourage you, as you read these recommendations, to understand and, most importantly, to act on yours.”