Canadian Inquiry Comes to a Close, Revealing Systematic Mistreatment of Indigenous Women

Three years in the making, the final report calls on authorities to institute a paradigm shift in policing practices.

Ottawa vigil for missing and murdered aboriginal women in 2014. Obert Madondo. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Ottawa vigil for missing and murdered aboriginal women in 2014. Obert Madondo. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Over the past three years, Canada has held 24 hearings and events, engaged with more than 2,380 citizens, and spent $92 million on a massive national inquiry into the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls—who make up less than 4 percent of Canada’s female population but a whopping 16 percent of females killed in the country annually. On June 3, the harrowing process came to a close, culminating in a conclusion as decisive as it is unsettling: The Canadian government and civil society is complicit in perpetrating what amounts to genocide.

Justin Trudeau giving a speech on missing and murdered Indigenous women in 2016. Delusion23 via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

Justin Trudeau giving a speech on missing and murdered Indigenous women in 2016. Delusion23 via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

At the closing ceremony in Gatineau, Quebec, Indigenous youth presented the final report, wrapped in a traditional cloth, to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. All told, the report is over 1,200 pages long and includes 230 recommendations. It describes a historical failure on the part of the police and the criminal justice system, systems that have ignored the concerns of Indigenous women and viewed them “through a lens of pervasive racist and sexist stereotypes”—behavior that has in turn fostered mistrust of the authorities among the Indigenous population. In beginning to mitigate these chronic injustices, the report suggests, authorities should expand Indigenous women’s shelters and improve policing in Indigenous communities; increase the number of Indigenous people on police forces; and empower more Indigenous women to serve on civilian boards that oversee the police.

In addition, it calls for a shift in the criminal code to classify some killings of Indigenous women by spouses with a history of violent abuse as first-degree murder, regardless of premeditation. Addressing the less tangible issue of cultural discrimination, the report also requested that the federal and provincial governments afford Indigenous languages the same status as Canada’s official tongues of English and French.

Regardless of future success in creating a safer and more equitable situation for Indigenous women, helping Canadians understand the historical narrative of violence will remain crucial. As such, the report addresses teachers and post-secondary institutions, asking them to educate the public about missing and murdered Indigenous women and the root causes of their plight, and to bring attention to the state laws, policies, and colonial practices that catalyzed the genocidal conditions. In an interview for Quartz, Carol Couchie, co-chair of the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives, spoke to the lasting effects of structural discrimination: “Family structure has broken up, tribal structure has broken up, leadership has been weakened, the self-esteem has been reduced to on the ground, and these things have all affected our ability to care for young people, to care for women.” Marion Buller, chief commissioner of the inquiry and a retired Indigenous judge, expressed a similar sentiment in her succinct statement to the New York Times: “An absolute paradigm shift is required to dismantle colonialism in Canadian society.”

Woman performing at 2017 National Aboriginal Day in Regina. Ted McGrath. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Woman performing at 2017 National Aboriginal Day in Regina. Ted McGrath. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Trudeau, for his part, guaranteed a thorough review of the report, and committed to creating a National Action Plan “with Indigenous partners to determine next steps.” Yet even with promises of legislative change, some Indigenous Canadians point to harmful attitudes that may undermine the reality of reform on the ground. For instance, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, most of the violent crimes against Indigenous women are perpetrated by people within their own communities—a statistic that, according to Indigenous author Niigaan Sinclair, “has become the linchpin for arguments that murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls are not a Canadian problem, but an Indigenous one.” In a piece for the Winnipeg Free Press, Sinclair notes that former minister of Aboriginal affairs Bernard Valcourt used this argument to refute the prospect of the inquiry in the first place, and addresses the systemic factors that invalidate Valcourt’s position: “Indigenous women and girls do not join the ranks of the murdered and missing because of Indigenous men, but because of the contexts they are in. Most of these are dangerous situations imposed from circumstances brought on by poverty, abusive cycles and systems, and oppression.”

The REDress Project, on display in Winnipeg, serves as a reminder of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Ted McGrath. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The REDress Project, on display in Winnipeg, serves as a reminder of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Ted McGrath. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Still, the very existence of the report and the promises of action it has engendered are cause for optimism, however cautious it might be. In a piece for The Conversation, Margaret Moss describes her disappointment as an American Indian woman who recently moved to Canada and has observed the same racism in the United States’ northern neighbor as she did back home. Yet her viewpoint as an American also lends her perspective and a sense of hope. “[C]ompared to the lack of moral outrage in the U.S. on this issue, I am [made] hopeful by the very fact that in Canada, after much activism, such a committee was formed and a report of the findings were released with a bold statement,” Moss writes. “Maybe this will shake people out of complacency.”





TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.