This week, family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people, survivors of violence, community activists and Indigenous leaders gathered in Ottawa for the release of “Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.” They were there to acknowledge the inquiry’s work in a collective ceremony to honor the lives of those who have experienced violence. It was an demonstration of the love that exists within Indigenous communities for Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people — and a recognition of the overwhelming levels of violence they have had to endure for generations.
The report, released Monday, finds that “persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses are the root cause behind Canada’s staggering rates of violence.” The inquiry concluded that Canada has committed a genocide against the Indigenous peoples within its colonial borders, and is continuing to maintain systems and structures that result in Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people experiencing a disproportionate amount of violence.
Even with a two-year mandate, the inquiry was unable to determine a definitive number of Indigenous people who are missing or have been murdered. But Indigenous women were reported to be at least six times more likely to be victims of homicide than non-Indigenous women.
The new report, which consists of more than 1,200 pages, contains hundreds of calls for justice that methodically address the interrelated ways Canadian and Indigenous structures, programs and services must change to promote the substantive equality of Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people. These calls include establishing a “National Indigenous and Human Rights Ombudsperson” and a “National Indigenous Human Rights Tribunal,” developing and implementing a national action plan, and providing long-term funding for educational programs and violence prevention campaigns.
The report affirms what Indigenous people have long understood — that the violence they experience is a product of settler colonialism. The continuation of the Canadian settler state requires the destabilization of Indigenous communities — and a part of this stabilization has involved rampant gender-based violence to uphold the legitimacy of the settler state’s rule over land and water.
While settler colonialism impacts Indigenous peoples of all genders, it makes women, girls and Two-Spirit people especially vulnerable to violence. In 1924, the Canadian state imposed a government structure within First Nations communities, removing their traditional leadership. And since 1876, Canada has enforced the Indian Act, which at times forced “Indian” women out of leadership positions and removed their legal status if they chose to go to university or marry a non-Indigenous person, or if their fathers chose to enfranchise them. The sex-based discrimination in the Indian Act is identified as one of the root causes of violence toward First Nations women in the report.
Over time, advancements in the rights of Indigenous peoples have resulted in Supreme Court challenges and findings of discrimination from international bodies. However, Canada has maintained a state definition of “Status Indians,” defining membership in communities from outside the norms and traditions of those people, and has yet to fully eliminate how these structures perpetuate sex-based discrimination.
The national inquiry report outlines in great detail how the nature of settler colonialism in Canada has evolved into an insidious and distinctly Canadian social reality that ignores reports of brutal murders and missing persons, even as these numbers reached alarming levels.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets a minimum standard for the recognition of their collective rights and sees improvement in the lives of Indigenous peoples as contingent upon their ability to exercise self-determination. Now, the inquiry’s report makes clear that responding to the calls for justice and undertaking actions to end violence require restoring Indigenous jurisdiction in ways that prioritize the safety of Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people.
For too long, our communities have feared that shedding light on violence would undermine Indigenous leadership. Communities have viewed crises as something that must remain hidden in order for Indigenous structures to be restored, and enduring the violence we experience has been seen as the cost of nation-building.
The inquiry has established that violence in Indigenous communities and the ongoing refusal to recognize Indigenous-led ways of governance reinforce one another, to the benefit of the settler state. Immediate action on the calls for justice is needed in order to protect Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people. We must be able to not only express our aspirations openly but also confront our challenges and seek our own solutions to the issues we face, including gender-based violence. As Indigenous communities continue to assert their sovereignty, the role of the paternalistic settler state must be limited and clearly defined.
The release of the final report marks a pivotal moment in the recognition and advancement of the individual and collective rights of Indigenous people. As Indigenous people continue to overcome the violence and trauma instilled in their communities by a settler state, the inquiry insists “the exclusion of Indigenous women, girls, 2SLGBTQQIA people, Elders, and children from the exercise of Indigenous self-determination must end.” Honoring missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people requires it.
Courtney Skye is Mohawk, Turtle Clan, from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. She is a research fellow at Yellowhead Institute, a First Nations-led policy think tank at the Faculty of Arts, Ryerson University.