When Will North America Reckon With the Ongoing Genocide of Indigenous Women?

A two-year study by a Canadian commission has declared that a genocide is taking place—but the only people who seem to care are indigenous.
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Chief Commissioner Marion Buller speaks at the closing ceremony marking the conclusion of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, on June 3rd, 2019. After two and a half years of hearings, a Canadian inquiry released its final report on the disappearance and death of hundreds if not thousands of indigenous women, victims of endemic violence that the commission controversially said amounted to "genocide."

Chief Commissioner Marion Buller speaks at the closing ceremony marking the conclusion of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, on June 3rd, 2019. After two and a half years of hearings, a Canadian inquiry released its final report on the disappearance and death of hundreds if not thousands of indigenous women, victims of endemic violence that the commission controversially said amounted to "genocide."

Canada's $92 million National Inquiry Into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls was released on June 3rd. In announcing the report, Chief Commissioner Marion Buller declared that the damage being done to Native women represents a "deliberate race, identity, and gender-based genocide."

When asked about the report by APTN reporter Tina House, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, "We accept the findings of the commissioners that it was genocide, but our focus is going to be, as it must be, on the families, on the communities that have suffered such loss, on the systems that have repeatedly failed indigenous women and girls across this country."

Trudeau's statement seemed marked by reluctance, so House reiterated her question by drawing on the testimony from affected families: "Yesterday, many of the families that we spoke with said it was important for them to hear the acknowledgement coming from you," she said. "Is that a yes or no? Do you believe it was genocide?"

Trudeau responded, "I have acknowledged that I accept the findings of the report and the issue that we have is that people are getting wrapped up in debates over a very important and powerful term, and our focus—as I've said—we accept those findings, we accept the finding that this was genocide. We will move forward to end this ongoing national tragedy."

I'm tired of administrative and professionally emotionless responses to things like the murder and rape and disappearance of our women. Indigenous women I know weren't surprised to hear the word "genocide" surface in the national report. My auntie has always said there's a direct correlation between violence against the Earth and the violence against our women. The narrative that we were, or remain, "squaws" continues to cause real damage. Policies like Indian boarding schools, residential schools, and the Indian Removal Act in the United States and the Indian Act in Canada have ravaged indigenous people across North America, and the aftereffects continue to affect our daily lives.

White Canadian men on Twitter have begun disagreeing with the inquiry's findings. The writer Jon Kay objected to the term being used, arguing that, if these disappearances really qualified as genocide, then we would logically have to describe indigenous men as genocidaires, since—in Kay's account—they perpetrated most of the killings.

Of course, if Kay had read the full report, he would have noticed the line that reads: "The often-cited statistic that indigenous men are responsible for 70 percent of murders of indigenous women and girls is not factually based." The report further states: "In our view, the [Royal Canadian Mounted Police'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." You can lead white people to water and they'll colonize it, another of my aunties says.

We understand very clearly that our own men are hurting us. In May, a student at my alma mater, the Institute of American Indian Arts, alleged she'd been sexually violated by an employee, an indigenous man with whom I graduated in 2016. The account was horrific, and the response was administrative, as it usually is. The president of IAIA offered a bloodless statement, saying that the school had reported the allegation to the sheriff's office and would conduct an investigation of its own. The president added: "This is a reminder to all members of the IAIA community that IAIA takes all claims and complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence seriously."

Students at IAIA, on the other hand, produced a video, titled "Stop the Silence IAIA!!" where several students told the camera, "I do not feel safe here."

It was good to see students defending themselves and speaking out, but I worry when it's only the students and Native women in a community speaking with passion about fixing the crisis, while the administration is busy administrating and "taking things seriously."

Who even knows what "taking things seriously" means? I've never seen that statement used in a meaningful way that pointed toward a solution. It's something principals say about a bullying problem, where they don't want to be liable for an assault but can't condemn the bully either, because of a separate liability issue. As indigenous women, we know that our own men can be culprits too, but the systems that administrate—that willfully ignore or mishandle our testimony—are in place because of colonization. Every pain in our side, and against our bodies, has some direct relationship to a power beyond us, inflicted on us; we are treated as though we are sub-human, even by our own governments and institutions.

In inquiries of this sort, there is a constant refrain, almost as you'd find in a poem, usually made up of variations on the phrase "lack of." It comes up several dozens of times in the report on murdered and missing indigenous women. In passages of the text concerning our women and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual) community members, the commission reports that there is a "lack of services," a "lack of trust in the service providers," a "lack of financial resources," a "lack of implementation" over consultation, a "lack of indigenous interpreters," a "lack of safety and care in the family home" leading to youth running away, and a "lack of support for youth aging out of care." And our "lack of" goes on. And on.

I feel this general "lack of" today. I am tired, pushing through the inquiry, reading page after page, and listening to the cold administrative responses about our lived physical and emotional pain as indigenous women trying to survive a genocide. I feel the lack in my daily life, when I think about the death of Shawnee Inyallie, a woman who lived near my community, whose cousins are my friends. Shawnee went missing last year and was found in the Delta River; authorities labeled her death "not suspicious." We see posters for missing women every day, and deaths are labeled "not suspicious" so often, it's hard to be hopeful that anything will change.

With the release of this report, I hope that people who are not aware of our circumstances will read it with an open heart, and pay attention to the recommendations and testimony it contains, understanding that sometimes genocide looks like a slow burn from the outside, but inside, here with me, it looks like a wildfire that was already there when I was just a little girl, and women were disappearing and being labeled sex workers simply because they were Indian. It looked like my friends in sharing circles in elementary school, where we were asked by a teacher if we'd ever experienced inappropriate sexual behavior, and each of us had a story. It looks like knowing if you went in as a teen for birth control, you could be sterilized, and it sounds like a horror movie, right? That's why I never sought birth control; I was scared.

It hurts to look at. But then imagine that you have no choice. That's how it feels.

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