A Settler Reads the Report of the National Inquiry into MMIWG (2)

Note to Readers: I am a fifth-generation white European settler. My predecessors included many clergy and others who certainly must have contributed extensively to the colonization of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. The least I can do is to read this report with an utterly open mind and to learn from it, and to share what I am learning with my children and my grandchildren and you. This series of posts will highlight some passages that stood out as I was reading each chapter, as well as noting things I have learned and what I have thought about while I was reading. I am in no rush and it will probably take me months to complete this challenge. Your comments are welcome, although they will be filtered to ensure there is no racist or inflammatory language, but only thoughtful discussion. If you don’t like my publication standards re: your comments, please complain to someone besides me.

Introduction to the Final Report: Understanding Violence against Indigenous Women, Girls and 2SLGBTQQIA1 People (Part 1)

While the “Introduction to the Final Report” is included in the Preface, it is a very important (and lengthy) section on its own – which is why I am devoting two full posts to it, separately from the one I have written about the Preface.

The Introduction opens by explaining that 2,380 people participated in the National Inquiry, in many different ways: some in public hearings, some privately, some with spoken or written statements, some by creating works of art, and in many other ways.

Then it says,”The truths shared in these National Inquiry hearings tell the story – or more accurately thousands of stories – of acts of genocide against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people. The violence the National Inquiry heard amounts to a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples, including First Nations, Inuit and Métis, which especially targets women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people. This genocide has been empowered by colonial structures evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools and breaches of human and Indigenous rights, leading to the current increased rates of violence, death and suicide in Indigenous populations” (p. 50).

The Introduction then goes on to define the word “genocide,” which it explains has been in use since 1933 and originally dealt with the actions of the Germans “within the context of the buildup to the the Second World War. [….] ‘Genocide,’ in its original construction, is defined as coordinated actions aimed at the destruction of a group, committed against individual members belonging to that group” (p. 50).

There follows an exploration of the two phases of ‘genocide’ as defined by Raphael Lemkin (“destruction of the national pattern of the group” and “imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor”) and the eight fields across which Lemkin wrote that genocide could occur (political, cultural, economic, etc), and what he stated as its objectives (p. 50).

The Introduction recounts the subsequent history of the use of the word genocide – when and why it was incorporated into international law and how, with Lemkin’s approval, the definition was modified by lawmakers before it was written into statute. It sets out the relevant articles of the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a document which Canada signed in 1948 and ratified in 1952.

The Introduction to the Final Report explores ongoing international debates over the question of “intent” as it relates to genocide, the nature of groups that can be said to be the targets of genocide, and what qualifies as actual evidence of acts of genocide having been committed. Part of this ongoing discussion is occurring because the original definitions were set out more than half a century ago, the Report says, adding that “Today fields other than the law also examine genocide in different terms.” (p. 51)

The Introduction quotes informed writers in the field – including Daniel Feierstein, Director of the Centre of Genocide Studies at the National University of Tres de Febrero in Argentina, Canadian writer and filmmaker Larry Krotz, and genocide scholar Andrew Woolford – on the historic application of the word “genocide” and the difficulties involved in applying the term, given the extremity of the circumstances to which it has been previously applied. It also sets out in general the reasons why the Report has invoked this word to describe the acts that have historically been – and continue to be – visited upon Canada’s Indigenous people.

In addition to the background information included in the Introduction — and the evidence contained in the report itself – the National Inquiry is preparing “a supplementary report on the Canadian genocide of Indigenous Peoples according to the legal definition of ‘genocide’,” which will be available on the Inquiry’s website (p. 54).

No Time to Start Arguing

Despite two words that might have been taken as instructive – “Listening Deeply” – that are included in a subhead near the beginning of the Introduction, many readers, including a few writers of editorials and opinion pieces who happen to be white settlers (yet again giving us a bad name), seem to have stopped “listening” (reading) at this point in order to argue about the document’s use of the word “genocide.”

As an editor, I cannot count the number of times I have told authors of books and articles that the only way to write an effective introduction is to write it after they have written the rest of their books or articles. I am fairly certain that this must have been the approach that was taken by the authors of the Final Report. Since these individuals have lived experience as members of Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, and have “listened deeply” at the hearings and done a monumental amount of related research before writing this report and its Introduction, I will give them credit for having far more knowledge on the subject than I have at this point in my reading – or will likely ever have. I will therefore hold off on delivering my opinion on their use of the word “genocide” at least until I have read the whole Report. In the meantime, however, the definitions of “genocide” that they provide certainly seem appropriate to the treatment these people have received.

I encourage you to read at least this section of the Report.

The Statistics Are Stunning

I also encourage you to read the statistics contained on pages 54 to 57 of the Introduction to the Final Report. They are beyond comprehension, and they underscore the importance of the work done by this Inquiry and of the Report itself. Here are just a few:

  • An RCMP report confirmed 1,181 cases of police-recorded incidents of Aboriginal female homicides and unresolved missing Aboriginal females between 1980 and 2012 (p. 54).
  • The same RCMP report found that “Indigenous women made up roughly 16% of all female homicides between 1980 and 2012, despite making up only 4% of the female population.” Today, estimates place the percentage of female homicides who are Indigenous at 25% (p. 55)
  • Indigenous women are 16 times more likely to be murdered or missing than Caucasian women (p. 55)
  • Indigenous women are sexually assaulted three times more often than non-Indigenous women (p. 55)
  • One Ontario study of gender-diverse and Two Spirit Indigenous people found that 73% had experienced some form of violence due to transphobia (p. 56)

Framework for the Inquiry

One section of the Introduction to the Final Report addresses framework areas that the National Inquiry considered before undertaking its work.

Its mandate was very broad: “(1) to report on all forms of violence against (2) Indigenous women and girls” (p. 58), and it is clear that a great deal of effort went in to the important work of interpreting that mandate. The words “all forms of violence,” for example, gave the Inquiry an almost overwhelming purview and taxed it with a monumental amount of work, especially given its time limits, but it also offered necessary and desirable latitude in terms of how it was able to proceed.

Specific terms that formed part of the mandate also needed to be defined, such as “Indigenous,” which the Inquiry interpreted as including First Nations, Inuit and Métis. Further, the Commission felt it was essential to include Two Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual (2SLGBTQQIA) people in their inquiry for reasons that are both inclusive and historically relevant.

One section of the Introduction is devoted to exploring the “powers and limitations of the National Inquiry,” explaining that the mandate of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was unusual in that it came not only from the Federal government but from each province and territory as well — and that the rules and regulations for the work varied by jurisdiction, adding to the complexity of the undertaking.

As far as limitations, the authors explain that the National Inquiry has no ability to do anything but make recommendations, although it hopes that its conclusions will speak loudly enough to create the kind of pressure that effects legislative change, and that it is unable to deal with individual cases.

The Process

In carrying out its work of “truth-gathering” (what a lovely way to say it), the National Inquiry “sought to be families-first (putting the family members of lost loved ones and survivors of violence ahead of others who usually hold the power, including politicians, governments and the media), trauma-informed (supporting healing in a way that does no further harm) and decolonizing (centring Indigenous ways of being, knowing and doing),” based on the guiding principle that “our women and girls are sacred.” (p. 60)

There were four parts to the truth-gathering process. Part 1 was to listen to the lived experiences of family members and survivors, and the report explains that there were various means of collecting and witnessing these stories. Parts 2 and 3 involved “Institutional Hearings” and “Expert and Knowledge-Keeper Hearings.” Part 4 was made up of “Parties with Standing,” such as non-governmental groups and Indigenous women’s organizations that had “substantial or direct interest in the subject” (p. 61). This section of the introduction explains how prospective presenters were contacted, and how the stories were gathered. It also explains such procedural issues as who were qualified to speak as Experts and Knowledge-Keepers and who was permitted to ask questions of the Institutional and Expert witnesses.

(To be continued….)

1 Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual

A Settler Reads the Report of the National Inquiry into MMIWG (1)

Note to Readers: I am a fifth-generation white European settler. My predecessors included many clergy and others who certainly must have contributed extensively to the colonization of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. The least I can do is to read this report with an utterly open mind and to learn from it, and to share what I am learning with my children and my grandchildren and you. This series of posts will highlight some passages that stood out as I was reading each chapter, as well as noting things I have learned and what I have thought about while I was reading. I am in no rush and it will probably take me months to complete this challenge. Your comments are welcome, although they will be filtered to ensure there is no racist or inflammatory language, but only thoughtful discussion. If you don’t like my publication standards re: your comments, please complain to someone besides me.

The Preface

The Preface of The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls includes forewords from the Commissioners of the Inquiry, messages from the Directors, reflections from members of the National Family Advisory Circle and from the National Inquiry Elders and Grandmothers Circle. The Introduction to the Report, “Understanding Violence Against Indigenous Women, Girls and 2SLGBTQQIA1 people,” is also included in the Preface, but I will discuss it separately.

This post includes a few of the statements and comments from the Preface that I found meaningful, and my explanations for why they stood out to me.

Jeremiah Bosse, who is the widower of Daleen Bosse, was one of the members of the National Family Advisory Circle (NFAC) – an advisory group to the National Inquiry that was made up of families and survivors.

Bosse said, “At first my thoughts about a National Inquiry were, ‘Will this actually work or help?’ Doubt wandered around my brain, knowing how many First Nations issues have been swept under the rug.

“I now hope this National Inquiry touches the hearts of the people of Canada, helping non-Indigenous people understand the need for reconciliation. 

“Today I feel hopeful for the first time that as victims of violence our words will be heard. The words of our lost ones are spoken! We will be there to represent them; they may be lost but they are not forgotten.” (p. 18)

Bosse’s words made me glad that I had made the decision to read the Report, but it also made me concerned and sad because I am sure that most people will not have the time or opportunity or willingness to read it. Comments by many other individuals from the NFAC elicited the same response in me.

Statements like Bosse’s made me decide that, rather than just reading the Report, I would write down my responses to what I had read — thereby, I hoped, attracting the interest of others in the words so carefully put down in the Report.

As well as raising many, many issues, the Preface reinforced my awareness of the common concerns that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada share at this time in history regarding the future of our land. I considered that we can learn ways of doing from the people who were here first, and was reminded that in Indigenous cultures, very often it is the women in whom this knowledge has been invested.

Rebecca Moore said, “As an l’nu woman, I have been taught by my Elders that it is our inherent duty, as l’nu women, to take care of the water and protect the land for the future seven generations. I feel this is imperative for Canadians to understand. I take my inherent duty very seriously, which requires much of my time, effort, care and attention.” (30)

“Our Women and Girls Are Sacred”

In the Preface, the authors of the Report talked about how the structure of the Inquiry had evolved. They discussed the need they had felt to incorporate ceremony and spirituality in their work.

The Elders and Grandmothers Circle was an important advisory council to the commissioners and in a sweatlodge early in the process, they and the commissioners discussed “How the national Inquiry will proceed. For the Grandmothers (and Elders), for the Commissioners. What will our work be?” (Pénélope Guay, p. 33)

They realized that an important component would be the need to have “something that showed our Indigeneity and that blanket idea came out of that. Those blankets that are hung up around the rooms [at the hearings]. Those blankets that identify people, identify their Nations, their names, their land masses, the things that they use for their cultures…. That helped to shape us and to make sure that we never forget about ceremony, to incorporate ceremony into everything that we do.” – Elder Laureen “Blu” Waters, p. 34.

The Report states, “One of the most unique ways that the Grandmothers have guided the National Inquiry is by helping us understand what ‘sacred’ looks like in everyday life and in the context of this work. What does ‘sacred mean? and if women and girls are sacred, how does that affect what we do? From the Grandmothers, we can see that the idea of women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people being ‘sacred’ is as multi-faceted as people themselves” (p. 39)

With the guidance of the Grandmothers, the National Inquiry “did its best to incorporate the local traditions and cultures into its hearings whenever possible. [….] This includes the way the rooms were arranged and the opportunity for families to access both Indigenous and Western healing supports.” (p. 38)

“As Pénélope points out, making spirituality so visible in the National Inquiry is one of the things that makes it unique: “That’s still important. It’s an inquiry, there are Commissioners. Witnesses, lawyers. Putting spirituality at the centre of this National Inquiry allows us to work in a calmer atmosphere, rooted in cultural values that are thousands of years old’.” (p. 38)

Learning from One Another

It had not occurred to me that for participants, contributing to the Inquiry would not only help to inform institutions and non-Indigenous people of the many factors that have led to the murder and disappearance of Indigenous women and girls, but would also allow Indigenous people from different regions to learn about one another’s experiences. As time went on (it seemed to me), this outcome took on increasing importance as shared experiences among Indigenous groups built their sense of community and confidence in what they were doing.

Elder Louise Haulli, from Iglooluk Nunavet, “emphasiz[ed] how much she has learned from hearing the stories of so many other Indigenous women in Canada, and how important it is not to feel that we know it all, but to really pause, listen to the families and survivors, and learn from what they have to share.” (p. 36)

The Need to Pay Attention with Hearts as Well as Heads

Not everything I read produced an immediately positive response in me. Some statements made me react defensively. For example, when I read that Lisa Semmler, a member of the National Family Advisory Circle, had said, “I hope that all people in Canada will sit down and read everything that has been done to Indigenous people before they just say it’s our own fault. Without a shift in that thinking, nothing Is going to change” (p. 26), a voice inside my head protested, “I never said it was your fault. I have never believed that you have brought all this horror on yourselves.” But then I reminded myself that part of my purpose in reading this report is to learn how we white people are seen by Indigenous Canadians, and how Indigenous people perceive that we view others.

In relation to that reminder, here are other statements from the Preface that I highlighted so that later I would be able to reread them:

  • “Assimilation is still how the dominant culture approaches Indigenous Peoples. Somehow, we need to become them to be okay. We need to have their values. We need to have their world views. If we don’t, then there’s something psychologically wrong, deficient in us.” (Grandmother Leslie Spillett, p. 41)
  • “Ultimately it comes down to listening to Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIIA people. We have to value their voices, and fight against the stereotypes and centuries of colonization that have de-valued and dismissed the many gifts they have to offer.” (p. 43)
  • “For many non-Indigenous people, it’s important to be ready to ‘unlearn’ some learned behaviours. Blu points out, ‘There’s still a lot of others out there that don’t really think that this is that important. [….} They think these things happened 300 years ago and why are we still talking about it? If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. This is every Canadian’s responsibility not to turn a blind eye’.” (p. 45)
  • “…. whether it be water, whether it be land, whether it be suicides, whether it be missing persons, whether it be housing, whether it be lack of resources. The government has to start listening.” (Blu, p. 45)
  • “… it’s not just for Aboriginal people. Canadian society’s going to learn from what we write and what we do and what we say. They may not like some of the stuff they hear. That’s part of the healing process.” (Kathy Louis, p. 52)

Here is just one of thousands of reasons why we need to pay close attention to The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls: “Between January and September 2018, [Grandmother] Bernie lost a staggering 88 friends or family members to violence in the Downtown East Side. Children are experiencing a terrible psychosis, she says ‘and everyone just kind of turns a blind eye’.” (p. 43)

I will not turn a blind eye.


1 Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual