Days after accepting a national inquiry’s finding that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous women and girls amounts to genocide, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau treaded carefully when asked about calls to investigate that conclusion.
Speaking with reporters in France after a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Trudeau was asked if it would advance the cause of reconciliation to prosecute Canadian institutions or individuals for genocide.
“Our focus on calling the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) was very much on putting an end to this ongoing national tragedy,” he said, adding the work of commissioners and grieving families will help establish a path forward.
“Our focus as a government, our focus as Canadians, our focus as a world needs to be on moving forward in ways that respect Indigenous peoples, support Indigenous languages and culture, and put an end to the terrible violence that continues in Canada and elsewhere around the world,” Trudeau said.
“If the work that Canada has done to highlight the challenges that we have faced and that in some ways are ongoing, then I think the world has a positive lesson to learn.”
Watch: All Canadians have a role to play in ending MMIW ‘genocide,’ report says
The final report of the MMIWG inquiry, released Monday, used the powerful term dozens of times to describe systemic violence faced by Indigenous women and girls at the hands of Canadian authorities, including abuse in state institutions, deaths in police custody, coerced sterilizations, and the removal of children.
“This report is about deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide,” chief commissioner Marion Buller wrote in the preface.
Homicide rates, for example, are disproportionate when compared to non-Indigenous women. Between 1997 and 2000, the rate was seven times higher for Indigenous women, according to Statistics Canada.
Buller also noted the report deliberately used “hard words to address hard truths like genocide, colonization, murder and rape,” because to avoid such terms is to deny the “the truths of the families and survivors, front-line workers, and grassroots organizers.”
Though Trudeau did not use the word in his remarks after initially accepting the inquiry’s report Monday, he noted at the Women Deliver Conference in Vancouver, hours later, that the report concluded “the tragic violence that Indigenous women and girls have experienced amounts to genocide.”
On Tuesday, the prime minister said he “accepts the findings” of the MMIWG inquiry, but suggested a debate over the word should not take the focus off of communities that have suffered loss. He has pledged his government will craft a national plan to address violence against Indigenous women, girls, and LGBTQ and two-spirit people.
The national inquiry’s four commissioners released a statement calling Trudeau’s words an important moment in the journey towards truth and reconciliation.
“The acceptance of our findings of fact by the federal government, especially our finding of genocide, is an acceptance of the truths shared by families and survivors,” they said in the statement. “They no longer need to convince others that genocide is a part of Canadian history.”
OAS secretary-general wants probe
Adding to the pressure, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS) is publicly calling for a panel of experts to investigate the finding of genocide. The OAS is a Washington-based organization of 35 independent states of the Americas, including Canada and the United States.
Luis Almagro posted a letter he wrote to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland to Twitter Tuesday.
“Given evidence of genocide perpetrated against indigenous women and girls in Canada I have offered the creation of an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI Canada),” he wrote. “It is necessary to clarify these allegations and achieve justice.”
Almagro’s letter notes how Canada has promoted human rights in Nicaragua and Venezuela, and is currently pursuing a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
“Given that your country has always sided with scrutiny and international investigation in situations where human rights are violated in different countries, I am expecting to receive a favourable response to this request,” he wrote.
A spokesperson for Freeland told The Canadian Press that Canada is a strong supporter of the rules-based international order and the multilateral institutions that underpin it, including the OAS, and acknowledged the letter from Almagro.
Opposition Conservatives have not pushed Liberals on the issue. Tory Indigenous affairs critic Cathy McLeod told reporters Monday that genocide is a “very significant word with significant implications.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, however, has said he supports the language.
NDP MP Jenny Kwan rose in question period Tuesday to call on Trudeau, who was not in the House, to “state clearly that Canada committed genocide against indigenous women and girls.”
“The inquiry presented its final report, in which it found that the tragic violence that Indigenous women and girls have experienced amounts to genocide,” Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said. “As the prime minister has said, we accept these findings.”
Watch: NDP MP presses Liberals on MMIWG report
Bennett said the report also makes it clear that action is required from “all Canadians,” not just governments.
Genocide was recognized as a crime under international law in the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide. The term is defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” These include killing or causing serious bodily or mental harm to group members; imposing measures to prevent births or forcibly transferring children to another group; and forcing conditions on the group calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
Canada passed the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act in 2000, which recognizes genocide can encompass acts of “omission,” as well as commission.
The MMIWG inquiry also released a supplementary report offering a legal analysis supporting its conclusion of genocide. The report notes that under international law, “formal liability for the commission of genocide is to be made before judicial bodies,” such as the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda established by the UN Security Council.
The report draws a distinction between the “Holocaust prototype” of genocide, with a national policy “spearheaded by a totalitarian mastermind,” and “colonial genocide” that consists of a “slow death” carried out over centuries of policies, actions and omissions that cumulatively reflect an intention to destroy Indigenous peoples.
With files from The Canadian Press, Zi-Ann Lum