OTTAWA—The human rights division of the United Nations is now the second international body to call for a deeper examination of the conclusion from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls that Canada committed ongoing “colonial genocide” against Indigenous peoples.
In a statement Monday, the UN Human Rights Office said the inquiry uncovered “reasons to believe” Canada’s past and present policies, actions and failures to act towards Indigenous peoples amount to genocide under international law.
“We call on the government to take steps for competent national authorities to assess these serious claims,” said office spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani in an email to the Star.
The statement came as the office’s top representative — the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet — visited Ottawa to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and take part in a panel discussion on rights around the world with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Speaking briefly to reporters after the panel, Bachelet said she is aware of the inquiry’s finding of genocide, but emphasized that it is “more important” for Canada to consider the inquiry’s 231 recommendations to help victims of violence and prevent more harms against Indigenous women and girls.
“It’s very important that Canada will make a national action plan to include those recommendations to prevent things from happening again,” said Bachelet, referring to Trudeau’s pledge to craft a plan with Indigenous groups to address the inquiry’s demands for action.
“An inquiry is important, but now I think it is time for implementation,” she said.
Bachelet’s visit took place two weeks after the national inquiry that looked into the root causes of violence against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual) people released its final report. One of its conclusions was that centuries of state policies, acts and failures to act towards Indigenous peoples amount to an ongoing “colonial genocide” that set the conditions for an untold number of Indigenous women and girls to be murdered or go missing. (The RCMP has reported at least 1,181 murders and unsolved disappearances from 1980 to 2012.)
In an accompanying legal analysis, the inquiry said the genocide finding gives “serious reason to believe” Canada has breached international human rights obligations in a way that demands “broader examination” of potential crimes against humanity.
Two weeks ago, the same day the final report was released, the secretary general of the Organization of American States expressed “deepest consternation” and wrote to Freeland asking that Canada participate in a special expert panel that would investigate the genocide finding.
Freeland’s spokesperson Adam Austen said Monday that she has not yet responded to that request.
While Trudeau has said his government accepts the finding of genocide, the conclusion has been questioned by figures like Roméo Dallaire, the retired general who led the peacekeeping mission during the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has also rejected the use of the word “genocide” to describe Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has called on political leaders to have the “courage” to acknowledge it as truth.
As evidence of its finding, the inquiry pointed to a history that includes the forced removal of children from their families for residential schools and laws like the Indian Act that were designed to control and define membership of Indigenous groups. It also cited ongoing policies like Canada’s failure to protect women from exploitation and human trafficking, and to prevent deaths in police custody and to stop known killers from murdering again. It also cites “coerced sterilizations,” and “chronic underfunding of essential human services.”
Like Bachelet, who stressed the need to implement the inquiry’s recommendations, Trudeau and members of his cabinet have said the government should put more energy into preventing future harms than into labelling Canada’s failures.”
A spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said Monday that the federal government “respects” the inquiry’s conclusions and is committed to ending “the ongoing national tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ and two-spirit people.
“Our job now, and the job of other governments, including the provinces and territories, is to develop a national action plan — as called for by the inquiry — to implement its recommendations.”
Meanwhile, Bachelet met privately with Trudeau Monday morning in his West Block office on Parliament Hill. An official from the Prime Minister’s Office said they discussed a range of international human rights issues, and that Trudeau raised the inquiry’s report and the finding of genocide, and how there is a need to act in the face of its recommendations.
Later, during her panel discussion with Bachelet, Freeland said it is important for Canada — as a human rights defender on the world stage — to acknowledge its own shortcomings, like when the prime minister outlined Canada’s historic mistreatment of Indigenous peoples in a 2017 speech to the UN General Assembly.
“There’s a lot of work that we have to do at home, and I think that that opens up a better, truer conversation with other countries,” Freeland said.
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga