Ottawa: For decades, Canada’s indigenous people have warned that a disproportionately large number of their women and girls were vanishing or being killed, that police investigations of these crimes were careless, and that their pleas for help were being ignored.
On Monday, the government-appointed commission that has been investigating the claims is set to release its explosive conclusion: Canada’s indigenous women and girls are “under siege,” and their deaths and disappearances amount to “a race-based genocide.”
The Canadian National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is set to release its final report at a ceremony on Monday morning in Gatineau, Quebec. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and family members of victims are expected to attend.
“Genocide is the sum of the social practices, assumptions and actions detailed within this report,” the commission concludes in an executive summary obtained by The Washington Post. It lays out in detail how a mix of “appalling apathy” and “colonialist structures” has fuelled a “national tragedy” centuries in the making.
Trudeau, who promised a “total renewal” of Canada’s relationship with its 1.6 million indigenous people, launched the $92 million (Dh337.8 million) inquiry shortly after assuming office in 2015.
But the commission has drawn criticism for high staff turnover and an alleged lack of transparency. Critics say the process won’t bring justice because the commission wasn’t granted the authority to compel police to reopen cold cases.
The commission, headed by Marion Buller, British Columbia’s first female indigenous judge, crisscrossed the country for more than two years to take testimony from roughly 2,400 witnesses, including survivors and family members of victims.
They described the bodies of sisters, mothers and daughters being dredged out of rivers or found along a desolate stretch of highway in British Columbia where so many indigenous women and girls have disappeared or been killed that it is called the Highway of Tears.
They said police were slow to launch missing-persons investigations and quick to label unexplained deaths as drownings, suicides or drug overdoses, even when evidence suggested foul play.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported 1,181 cases of murdered or missing indigenous women and girls from 1980 to 2012. Indigenous women are six times as likely to be victims of homicide than non-indigenous women, the government agency Statistics Canada reported in 2017.
But those figures could be a gross undercount, according to the commission, which concludes that “no one knows the exact number” because thousands of deaths and disappearances “have likely gone unrecorded.”
The commission concludes that colonial violence, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia against indigenous women and girls have become so woven into the fabric of their lives that many have become accustomed to violence.
Contributing to that violence, the commission says, are historical and intergenerational trauma from government-directed family separation policies, residential schools and land dispossession; social and economic marginalisation; and a lack of willingness among Canadian institutions to change.
An “absolute paradigm shift” is needed “to dismantle colonialism within Canadian society,” the commission says. It recommends creating an independent task force to investigate unresolved cases and increasing punishments for violent offenses when the victims are indigenous women.
Canada’s indigenous people have long called for a probe into missing and slain women and girls. Trudeau’s Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, said the issue had been “studied to death” and was not “really high” on his government’s “radar.”
“The fact that this national inquiry is happening now doesn’t mean that indigenous people waited this long to speak up,” the commission says. “It means it took this long for Canada to listen.”
Not everyone felt heard.
Danielle Ewenin says she attended a commission hearing in Saskatchewan in 2017 to testify about her sister.
Eleanor ‘Laney’ Ewenin was found dead in a field on the outskirts of Calgary in 1982 at age 23. Police filed a report under an incorrect name; the case remains unsolved.
Ewenin said she decided to testify because she “wanted to make a difference for indigenous women.” But, she said, the inquiry operated under a patriarchal and colonial model that was not responsive to families, and its “mismanagement, bungling, ineptness and incompetence” doomed it to fail.
Ewenin says frequent calls to her caseworker, responsible for helping her track down police and coroner’s reports, went unanswered. She eventually obtained the records herself, she said, but was told it was too late to include them in the inquiry’s forensic audit of police files.
“I’m having a hard time disassociating myself from my feelings of anger and betrayal and injustice,” she said. “They did not find or honour the truth with my sister.”
Buller acknowledged last year that the commission had struggled with communicating with families. She blamed early missteps on bureaucratic challenges and the initial two-year deadline. (Buller requested a two-year extension. The government granted six more months.)
“When we first started, all that commissioners and I had was a piece of paper and a cellphone,” Buller told The Post in May 2018. “We’re designing the car, building the car, driving the car and loading passengers into the car all at the same time.”
She told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp that she understood “if people are frustrated, but this is a national inquiry with a very strict timeline handling horrible, horrible subject matters.”
Calls from family members of victims to reset the inquiry in 2017 went unheeded.