After more than three years, the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls released its report Monday, and called what happened to these victims a “Canadian genocide.” If we are honest about how Canada has treated its Indigenous Peoples, then this declaration should not come as a shock.
It is because of the history and legacy of hate, racism and bigotry towards Indigenous Canadians that the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women was ignored for so long by successive federal and provincial governments.
Had even a handful of white women from a particular community gone missing or been found murdered over a period of time, there is no doubt the full resources of the police and justice system would have been brought to bear to solve the cases. It would have been major news for months on end, and the media would have covered the investigations in great detail. However, because these women were Indigenous, and part of a marginalized community, the plight of the victims and their families were largely ignored by those whose job it was to protect them.
The RCMP estimates that since 1980, approximately 1,200 Indigenous Canadian women were murdered or went missing. Activists put the number closer to 4,000. By closing the books on the early cases too quickly, and not heeding the calls of victims’ families and activists to look deeper into what happened, the police and governments essentially gave license to those who saw Indigenous women as “disposable” to get away with murder for decades. The blood of all those dead and missing women is on the hands of Canada’s political leaders and justice officials.
If society and our political leaders had truly cared about the suffering of these Indigenous women, more investigations into the dead and missing would have taken place during the early years of this “genocide.” But the colonial policies and systems which facilitated the genocide of Indigenous Canadians were still in place as recently as the 1990s, and the legacies of those policies continues to affect Indigenous Canadians today.
Genocide happens because of hate and indifference towards a particular group within society. At the lowest level, genocide is instigated through acts of racism, bigotry, and a public narrative that delegitimizes or dehumanizes a people. In some parts of Canada (particularly western Canada), Indigenous people experience racism and bigotry far more than any other single group. Canada’s justice system has contributed to this attitude. Evidence of this is in the form of the number of Indigenous Canadians who are jailed. Despite being only 4.9 per cent of Canada’s population, they are the largest group represented in Canada’s prison population.
Before the 1960s, Indigenous people represented no more than two per cent of the federal prison population. In the subsequent decades, the rates of Indigenous imprisonment have consistently increased. The Office of the Correctional Investigator reports that the incarceration rate for Indigenous Canadians today is more than 26 per cent.
The higher rates of criminalization and imprisonment of Indigenous Canadians for acts linked to poverty, lack of educational and employment opportunities, substance use, mental health concerns and histories of sexual abuse, violence and trauma have been linked to the legacy of colonialism.
Hate, racism and bigotry against Indigenous Canadians is pernicious. That, plus a colonial legacy of genocide are what allowed almost 1,200 Indigenous women to be murdered and missing.
The inquiry’s final report is another wake up call to Canadians about the treatment of Indigenous Peoples and the colonial history of racism that resulted in the deaths and disappearances of so many women. This report should push all of us (but particularly governments) to work to make amends by heeding the words of the inquiry’s recommendations, and to ensure that the First Peoples of Canada are truly partners with all Canadians as we work to build a better country.
Fareed Khan is a human rights and anti-racism activist based in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, and the founder of the grassroots group Canadians United Against Hate.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019