How far will Canadian progressives go to right a ‘genocide’?

Canada’s long-awaited report on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) was released last week. Its central finding, that Canada is engaged in a “deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide,” has received cool reception from press and politician alike.

Reporters were initially quick to credulously repeat the study’s accusation, but more skeptical coverage now dominates, and editorial pages are filled with dissent. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau initially sought to avoid stating whether he believed the genocide charge was true, only to finally concede, with lawyerly carefulness, that “we accept their findings, including that what happened amounts to genocide” — though the report was speaking in the present tense. Several top Canadian scholars of human rights have come forward stating that they believe the term is being misused, grim realities of indigenous life notwithstanding.

The MMIWG inquiry was always destined to be radical. The process was run by four commissioners, three indigenous themselves. All had backgrounds in law and academia that revolved around critiquing and reforming Canadian institutions from a post-colonial aboriginal rights perspective. Given an open-ended mandate to investigate everything and anything related to the broad problem of gendered violence against aboriginals, the MMIWG commission quickly spiraled into a project of untempered ambition, whose sweeping denunciation of the systemic “racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia” of Canadian society should have come as little surprise.

More than 2,380 people participated in the commission’s work, including hundreds of indigenous women who had experienced violence firsthand. Yet it was never a fact-finding investigation as such. The priority was providing a space to share stories, experiences, emotions and opinions about the hardships of indigenous people in modern Canada. There were no cross-examinations, no gathering of statistics, no reliance on a “narrow or Western definition of ‘experts’,” as the report puts it, to verify truth.

Indeed, “from an Indigenous perspective, there is not necessarily a singular ‘truth,’” the commissioners note. “Instead, each person brings with them their truth, and by gathering these truths together, we can gain a more complete understanding of the issue.”

In other words, the undertaking was intended to be aggressively postmodern, aiming to define the scope of a problem on the basis of its victims’ perceptions. Hence the genocide conclusion: an allegation that sounds extreme but was nevertheless felt to be accurate by those who believe a deep hatred of aboriginal bodies and culture fuels Canadian civilization. Because the charge is a matter of belief, the thesis is not falsifiable.

This embrace of extreme conclusions is consistent with broader trends in Ottawa’s ongoing project to achieve “reconciliation.” Increased attention to indigenous suffering has not sired interest in building an inclusive Canadian common good that transcends race, but rather pessimistic assessments of a country deemed permanently defined by ethno-cultural stratification.

The MMIWG report’s 231 policy recommendations envision a future in which Ottawa grants indigenous peoples a vast array of unique legal, cultural, economic and self-governance rights to maximize their sovereignty from a hostile Canadian society. Institutions where joint Canadian-indigenous use is unavoidable, in turn, must atone by revising their understanding of concepts such as truth, history, democracy, language, law, medicine and science and elevate indigenous knowledge above the current “colonialist” conceptions of such things.

This unapologetic hostility to Canada’s Anglo-American heritage makes for a deeply anti-conservative agenda. More revealing, however, will be the response of upper-middle-class white Canadian progressives.

On the one hand, interest in the suffering of Native Canadians has become a fashionable cause of the urban Canadian left. Progressive managers in legal, political and academic institutions have filled their workplaces with rituals of wokeness — indigenous art and costume, prayer and blessing ceremonies, spoken and written land acknowledgements — to serve as overt gestures of their own awareness and empathy.

Yet at the same time, it is also they who have the most to lose from “questioning standard ways of doing things, challenging the status quo, and being open to radical, new alternatives” as the MMIWG report advises.

Does Canada’s legal establishment really have much appetite for a justice system that yields harsh sentences for crimes against aboriginal women, for instance? The minister of indigenous affairs says not really. The status of French as Canada’s second official language is considered sacred to Ottawa mandarins, so it’s hard to imagine the demand to grant an untold number of indigenous languages “the same status” being taken seriously.

Are the aggressively secular, science-minded men and women of Canada’s credentialed class really prepared to concede the validity of First Nations spiritualism in realms such as health care, ecology and education? What will be the consequence of introducing such concepts as “many truths” or “blood memories” (“a term often used by Indigenous Peoples to refer to memories stored in one’s body cells and passed on genetically,” says the MMIWG report’s student and youth engagement guide) — into institutions that value their empirical rigor? Who is prepared to sacrifice the credibility of their “colonial” expertise to find out?

Reactions to the report’s “genocide” charge provide a preview of how far many are prepared to go. Genocide is a concept much of liberal Canada takes extremely seriously. To casually employ it in an ostensibly serious study simply on the basis of strongly held feelings, however sympathetic, is to make a deeply provocative gesture in the face of those Canadians more in need of persuasion than it may sometimes seem.

For now, broad discomfort with the g-word suggests the report’s authors have misread elite Canada’s appetite for a postmodern revolution. The fact that this is not the first time such a call will go unheeded offers an increasingly academic indigenous rights movement opportunity to rethink its strategy.

J.J. McCullough is a Global Opinions contributing columnist.

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