On Reading The National Inquiry Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
The National Inquiry Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual peopleReactions to Reclaiming Power and Place, the title of the National Inquiry Report, have ranged from angry sarcasm to pious platitudes. I thought there would be lots of room in the middle ground for a reasoned, dispassionate if sympathetic reading. I had heard numerous declarations that all Canadians should read and educate themselves from this report. I, therefore, gave myself the task of reading the 1200-page report, the 300-page Quebec supplement, and the 50-page executive summary.
When I was done, my immediate reaction tended toward angry sarcasm. I had to remind myself of the experience of working on a large research project (though nothing in the order of magnitude of the National Inquiry) where the end result was a hodgepodge which failed to satisfy anyone's vision of what the project was meant to accomplish.
How are the victims served by this report?It is a bit of a fib (an "exaggeration" if you will) to say I "read" the entire report. I looked at every page until I understood its general content, stopping to read further when an entry struck me as directly relevant to the fates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. With the exception of the testimony of grieving relatives, I was in awe of how infrequently I could see a direct connection between the content of the report and what happened to victimized Indigenous women. The burning question for me was "How does this report benefit the cohort of Indigenous women who have been and will be victimized?"
Who will read this report?Despite Prime Minister Trudeau's claim that "this report will not sit on a shelf, gathering dust," my impression was that the report was designed to be ignored.* Who, other than someone like me (a retired nerd with a PhD who blogs as a hobby), is ever going to read this 1550-page report. On page 199 of Volume 1b, the inquiry calls "on all Canadians to: [ . . . ] Develop knowledge and read the Final Report." How seriously can we take the "call to justice" to "read the Final Report" when that "call" appears after we have read 920 pages of the Report we are being called to read?
The purpose of the National Inquiry?The only part of the Report which attempts to provide comprehensive data on what happened to the victimized women and how the criminal justice system dealt with their cases is Annex 1 of Volume 1b, the "Forensic Document Review Project," which runs from pages 233 to 276--that is, the last 43 pages of the 1550-page report. In this section of the Report we learn:
Over the course of its review, the FDRP identified the following significant issues:
1. There is no reliable estimate of the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA persons in Canada.Unfortunately, for me and, I suspect, for most Canadians, the reason for the Inquiry's existence was to find answers to these issues, and obviously these questions remain unanswered. Instead of a dedicated pursuit of answers to these questions, the Inquiry concluded:
2. The two Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) reports dated 2014 and 2015 on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls identify narrow and incomplete causes of homicides of Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
3. The often-cited statistic that Indigenous men are responsible for 70% of murders of Indigenous women and girls is not factually based.
4. Virtually no information was found with respect to either the numbers or causes of missing and murdered Métis and Inuit women and girls and Indigenous 2SLGBTQQIA persons.
The truths shared in these National Inquiry hearings tell the story – or, more accurately, thousands of stories – of acts of genocide against First Nations, Inuit and Métis women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.
"Cultural genocide" versus genocideI think it is reasonable to ask how the inquiry can claim, on one hand, that there is little to no accurate, factual information about what happened to these women and, on the other hand, to conclude that these women were victims of "acts of genocide"? The obvious answer is that the genocide conclusion has little or nothing to do with the findings of the Inquiry but was simply a foregone conclusion based on the already known 150-year history of the relationship between the government of Canada and its Indigenous peoples.
The 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee concluded that
For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Indigenous policy were to eliminate Indigenous governments; ignore Indigenous rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Indigenous peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”Doubtlessly, the National Inquiry was compelled to move beyond this "cultural genocide" accusation in order to avoid the criticism of its harshest critics that its work would be redundant. There had already been some 40 reports on Canada's Indigenous peoples and certainly the Harper Conservative government had argued that a 41st report would not reach any significantly new conclusions.
Additionally, "cultural genocide" has been debated in and ultimately not recognized by the United Nations. The Inquiry's Chief Commissioner, Marion Buller confirmed, in an interview on Power and Politics, that the claim of genocide was a strategy to compel various levels of government to take emergency measures and supply funding for the Inquiry's recommended projects. So far, the Inquiry's 231 recommendations, most of which require additional government funding, together with the accusation of a Canadian genocide against Indigenous women, seem most likely to engender a populist backlash against government support of First Nations rather than effective leverage. The sympathy of the Canadian population for missing and murdered Indigenous woman has, arguably, been squandered.
Enfranchisement and assimilation deemed genocideIn his monograph, Indigenous Nationals, Canadian Citizens, Thomas Courchene describes "competing models in play in terms of approaching the relationship of Indigenous peoples to the Canadian state." According to Courchene, "The first of these models is [. . .] 'enfranchisement,' namely converting Indians to regular Canadians, [ . . .] . At the other end of the spectrum is [. . .] an Indigenous-to-Crown relationship that can be characterized as 'institutionalized parallelism,' e.g., separate parliaments and Indigenous delivery of provincial-type services. Neither of these is acceptable; the first because it is now constitutionally impossible, and the second because, among other reasons, it would be prohibitively expensive."
Seemingly the National Inquiry has decided to label the first model as "genocide" and advocate for the second: greater independence and autonomy for First Nations, together with additional government funding and accommodation from non-native Canadians. The Inquiry's extensive recommendations seem, at first glance, highly impractical--certainly there is no discussion of potential costs. More striking for me, is that the Report offers little evidence or even theoretical argument that the expenditures they are recommending would specifically and effectively redress the victimization of Indigenous women and girls.
Assumptions of cause and effectThe underlying assumption of Reclaiming Power and Place is that if the problems of poverty, education, health care, culture and identity within native communities, and the lack of understanding of police, health-care providers, social workers and institutions outside native communities were corrected, the fates of the Indigenous victims could have been and can be avoided. These counterfactual claims may, in fact, be valid, but one would hope that the commissioners would offer something more than an underlying, unquestioned general assumption. Personally, I remain unconvinced that "culture and identity" (pages 327 to 338 of Vol. 1a) or the promotion of Indigenous arts and crafts (pages 53 to 74 of Vol. 1b) will address the problems of young women who have been sexually abused and murdered both inside and out of their Indigenous communities. I remain deeply sceptical that the return of "lost traditions" is a solution for young Indigenous women facing alienation, anomie and abuse in their home communities. (See Be Yourself! Is This Really Good Advice?)
Gynocentrism: Pros and consI understand the commissioners' perspective that global, large-scale solutions are necessary even though the Inquiry's purpose was understood to be (at least in the popular imagination) the very precise and concrete question of what happened to more than a thousand (if not thousands of) missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. However, rather than a global approach, the commissioners very deliberately opted for a gynocentric focus, making the inquiry dominantly about women's pursuit of answers to problems being encountered by women, and solutions, including governance, to be found in the empowerment of women. This approach seems laudatory, except that an obvious source, if not the source, of the problems being faced by Indigenous women is Indigenous men.
Although the Inquiry dismissed the claim "that Indigenous men are responsible for 70% of murders of Indigenous women and girls" as "not factually based," the Report offered no contradictory evidence. In Annex 1 of Reclaiming Power and Place it is noted that in 100% of the 26 solved homicides of Indigenous women from 2013-14 "the offender was known to the victim."
The Inquiry's response is:
In our view, the RCMP’s reliance on such a small number of cases creates an unreliable basis upon which to focus policy. A focus on spousal violence, on the basis of flawed statistics, has resulted in an erroneously narrow focus on Indigenous men as the perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women and girls, and neglects other significant patterns in relation to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.However, the Inquiry has also adopted a very narrow focus. The Report only gives a little more than a single page to "some men, who are also former perpetrators, [who] came forward to share their story" (Vol.1b page 37). The Inquiry decried negative stereotypes of Indigenous peoples and, clearly, did not want the Report to provide fodder for those stereotypes. However, truth and transparency cannot be achieved if there is an unwillingness to incisively investigate specific cases. Much of the Report is about grieving and "healing," compassionate objectives we should all support but, at the same time, we have to acknowledge that the purpose of an inquiry is to inquire rather than console. Numerous testimonies within the Report are impressionistic accounts of dealings with police and health services. The failure of police to pursue missing-persons cases, the arresting or threatening of the victims in domestic-abuse complaints, the kidnapping and rape of Indigenous women by police officers are all cases which should be thoroughly and objectively investigated and exposed. The failure of hospitals to provide death certificates to the families of victims is an egregious failure and should be investigated and reported upon in detail. However, in these instances, the Inquiry apparently took as its role the support and consoling of the victims and their families, rather than the investigation of the details of each case. The Inquiry rightly criticized the negative stereotyping of Indigenous peoples but, at the same time, has promulgated negative stereotypes of every police office, teacher, health-care worker, and social worker who has ever dealt with Indigenous individuals--not to mention branding every Canadian family that has fostered or adopted an Indigenous child as perpetrators of genocide.
Theories of causalityCriminology provides numerous theories and empirical data linking crime, poverty and race. The Inquiry seems to have taken the general tenor of these theories of causation as a priori fact without much review of the available literature and without specifying a particular theory they were adhering to. Obviously, there could be no empirical study of causes, if the Inquiry had decided at the outset not to investigate Indigenous perpetrators and, by extension, not to investigate perpetrators period. It is worth noting that the Inquiry's theory of causation is unique. Genocide is criminal but, beyond that, it is the underlying theory and conclusion of the Inquiry that genocide caused the crimes without being the crime. In other words, the Report does not provide a single example of the murderer of an Indigenous woman being motivated by genocide but, nonetheless, concludes that the murders were precipitated by genocide.
Untold storiesIs it heartlessness, a total lack of compassion, to be critical of a Report which was such an outpouring of tragedy and emotion? I return to my overarching question: "Will this Report benefit young Indigenous women?" It is disheartening to read in the Statistics Canada Report on Homicide that in 2017, when the National Inquiry was at the peak of its activities, 38 Aboriginal women were victims of homicide, an increase of 32% compared to 2016. In 2017, 118 Indigenous males were victims of homicide. According to the Statistics Canada Report, 18% of Indigenous homicides were considered to be gang related. Indigenous women were 6 times more likely to be the victims of homicide than non-indigenous women, and Indigenous persons were 12 times more likely to be the accused in a homicide investigation than non-indigenous persons. In terms of missing-persons reports, according to Statistics Canada, "[t]he proportion of victims reported as being missing prior to the incident being identified as a homicide was similar whether the victim was Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal (9% and 7%, respectively)." The National Inquiry's concern for the fragility and healing of witnesses, together with the narrow focus and self-fulfilling prophesy of genocide, left many potential avenues of investigation and consideration untouched.
Alternative solutionsClaims of Indigenous perpetrators and criminality in Indigenous communities in no way contradict the indictments of the National Inquiry Report that we must all stand behind and support Indigenous persons and communities as they deal with cycles of violence and incomprehension. Unfortunately, claims of a Canadian genocide put the question of perpetrators, intentions and motives foremost in Canadian minds. The challenge, which has been recognized since the 1970s (as opposed to assimilation as the only option in 19th-century thinking), is how to offer Indigenous communities and individuals both independence and support at the same time. A first step, as Courchene suggests in Indigenous Nationals, Canadian Citizens, is to recognize how the Canadian state systematically undermines the economic development of Indigenous communities. As Courchene points out, "Canadians tend to lay the blame for the dire straits of most of the reserves at the feet of the Indians"; however, as a matter of "federal policy," Indigenous people do not have property rights over the reservation land where they live. Consequently, "banks are most reticent in providing loans for capital investment or for mortgages because the Indian Act legally restricts banks from seizing and selling the asset in the event of default." The possibilities of economic development without venture capital are negligible to nil; hence the endless cycle of government subsidies which always fall short of ending poverty. Courchene comments:
It is incomprehensible that Canada and Canadians have allowed this federal instrument of mass impoverishment to reign so long over the hundreds of Canada’s First Nations reserves. (Italics in the original)Recognizing that smaller reserves have neither the population nor the resources to be financially viable, Courchene proposes a Commonwealth of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, modeled on the existing "Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nation [ . . .] the representative body of the seventy-four First Nations in Saskatchewan." An Indigenous commonwealth could be provincial or inter-provincial or, ideally, pan-Canadian, and it would give united Indigenous peoples the possibility of economic development. If poverty and discrimination and lack of independence are the underlying causes of criminality and the deaths of Indigenous women and girls, then here is a large-scale, revolutionary approach worth considering.
*Courchene's comment, in Indigenous Nationals, Canadian Citizens, on the 1991-1996 Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples paralleled my thoughts on no-one reading Reclaiming Power and Place:
Entitled People to People, Nation to Nation, RCAP consisted of five volumes, 440 recommendations (over a thousand if one includes sub-recommendations), 80,000 pages of hearings and 250 commissioned research papers. Intriguingly, because it was so encyclopedic, not only did it defy summarizing, but it also ensured that no core message could emerge.Consequently, the prevailing view was that the Chrétien government "more or less ignored the RCAP."
Courchene, Thomas J.. Indigenous Nationals, Canadian Citizens (Queen's Policy Studies Series) (p. 6-7). MQUP. Kindle Edition.