From the first paragraph of the much-anticipated final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), it was evident that commissioners weren’t going to shy away from addressing this “national emergency” with blunt language.
“This report is about these beautiful Indigenous people and the systemic factors that lead to their losses of dignity, humanity and, in too many cases, losses of life,” chief commissioner Marion Buller wrote in her preface. “This report is about deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide.”
The 1,200-page report, based on thousands of testimonies collected over the three-year inquiry, was presented to the federal government June 3. Its 231 “calls for justice” are described as obligatory “legal imperatives” that include sweeping reforms to Canada’s policing and justice system.
“We have a report that is broad but also highlights clearly that racism, sexism, misogyny and the colonial past are embedded in the systems and Indigenous women and girls are the ones suffering most,” commented Édith Cloutier, director general of the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre.
Cloutier said that frontline organizations like shelters and friendship centres can immediately address many of the report’s calls for justice by providing a safe space and services to a city’s most vulnerable members. She said it was interesting that the commission also issued a separate report on Quebec, saying that the province has been absent in Canada’s journey to reconciliation.
“What we’ve been saying all along is we have solutions – we need to have the political will to support those solutions,” Cloutier asserted. “I think we’re at that point of looking at decolonizing how we structure services for Indigenous people.”
Cloutier’s solutions include two major initiatives developed with partners that are currently being discussed with the provincial government. The first is an alternative Indigenous justice model and the second is making the friendship centre’s Indigenous health and social services a pilot project for the rest of Quebec.
She thinks an announcement about these innovative initiatives may come in September, when the Viens Commission’s report will be released. As an instrumental figure in helping her community’s Indigenous women come forward with allegations of police abuse, which led to establishing the commission, Cloutier knows how difficult it is “to speak about a system to a system that you have a breach of trust with.”
Lorelei Williams, a vocal advocate for MMIWG, is grateful that she received support on the day of her testimony for the National Inquiry in Vancouver because she felt she couldn’t leave her bed. She said that many families couldn’t handle the “emotional beating” of revisiting traumatic memories and ended up not testifying.
“My aunt Belinda Williams has been missing since 1978, before I was even born,” said Williams, who has been told all her life she resembles her aunt. “This was something I was born into. My family tried to report her as missing so many times and she was technically not even listed as missing until 2004.”
Police finally opened a missing person’s report that year following the arrest of serial killer Robert Pickton, later found to have murdered Williams’ cousin Tanya Holek in 1996. Williams was 15 when her cousin went missing and was so shaken that she had to finish school away from Vancouver.
When reporting her daughter missing, Williams’ aunt was called a bad mother and blamed for the disappearance. The civilian clerk said Holek was probably just in Mexico partying and that “she’s just a drug addict who nobody cares about.” The case was closed a month later without even a cursory investigation.
“I always say that all the systems are against us,” Williams told the Nation. “That’s why predators target us because they know that nobody cares. Action needs to be taken now because our women are being murdered and going missing and it’s not stopping.”
Williams continues advocating for MMIWG by building stronger relationships between Indigenous communities and police in Vancouver, founding empowering dance group Butterflies in Spirit, and participating throughout the National Inquiry. She was present when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally spoke the word “genocide” at a woman’s conference after initially avoiding the term. She intends to hold him accountable for implementing the report’s recommendations.
The report’s controversial findings of genocide have made international headlines and even prompted the Organization of American States (OAS) to ask permission to probe the matter, which Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett has said the government would support.
However, comparisons to Rwanda or the Holocaust miss the point, according to Nakuset, the director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal.
“This is you got off the boat and you created residential schools and the Indian Act and everything else,” Nakuset asserted. “Look how many people have died at Cabot Square since the Open Door left. You took away the essential services and now 12 people have died in three months. That’s the genocide. It continues. It’s a little more polite because it’s Canadian, a little bit under the rug so you don’t see it as much.”
Nakuset gave recent examples of her residents being raped but unable to access hospital services or make police reports because of language barriers or the remoteness of Place Versailles, the east-end police headquarters handling sexual assault complaints. She has told police that the shelter could be used to record assault testimonies and administer rape kits.
“This is how the system continually pushes us away,” Nakuset said. “Every institution we have issues with. It’s not traumatic enough the event but you have to make it harder and I think that’s worse.”
Montreal’s Native Women’s Shelter directly supports MMIWG through the Iskweu project, coordinated by Jessica Quijano. She acts as an intermediary between Indigenous women or their families and the police to help with filing reports, translations and ensuring a proper investigation is conducted.
The National Inquiry’s calls for justice include developing an effective response to sexual exploitation and human trafficking, of which Indigenous women comprise nearly half of victims. As pimps often target girls arriving at the bus station, the Iskweu project also offers welcome kits with information about various support services and even a lock to store their belongings.
Nakuset explained that the sex trade explodes during Montreal’s Grand Prix weekend, when the city is inundated with tourists. She said that pimps attempt to recruit girls from youth protection agencies while police remove the homeless from popular areas.
“You never read about that in the news but we know,” said Nakuset. “Even with the inquiry, the exact same number of women continue to be missing and it always falls on the shoulders of Indigenous organizations. I hope that with all these recommendations, someone takes it seriously and says we are going to fund you for the next 10 years.”