Home Perspectives Opinions What we can learn from the inquiry into indigenous women

What we can learn from the inquiry into indigenous women

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During Truth and Reconciliation Commission events, people placed personal items in the bentwood box. (Ve'ahavta photo)

The recent release of the final report of the “National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” is a defining moment for Canada. It has been the country’s first truly intersectional inquiry, with one of the broadest mandates and powers of any national inquiry to date. As Jews and as Canadians, we must not forget or dismiss its crucial work.

Reading the report’s 1,200-plus pages, it’s hard to miss the many references to Jewish authors and academics, especially concerning one of the inquiry’s important findings: that historical and ongoing Canadian colonization, including discriminatory policies and practices, as well as government neglect, constitutes genocide.

Raphael Lemkin, the legal scholar who first coined the term, is mentioned; Daniel Feierstein, director of the Centre of Genocide Studies at the National University of Tres de Febrero in Argentina, is quoted, along with Canadian writer and filmmaker Larry Krotz; Bernie Farber, former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, wrote with Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, on the incremental nature of genocides (both the Shoah and Canadian colonization).

As such, the report’s pages contain a moving dialogue between our peoples, drawing on our respective experiences of genocide, to make sense of historical and ongoing violence and discrimination.

However, this intercultural dialogue has not generally been reflected in media coverage of the report. In fact, much of the focus has been on the use of the word genocide. Several prominent members of our community have solely focused their discussion on a narrow definition of genocide – especially its intent aspect.

It is certainly paramount to ensure that words, particularly those with legal ramifications and emotionally charged connections, are used cautiously, judiciously, and that their application or boundaries of definition are not so stretched as to dilute their meaning.

In fact, the report delves into a discussion of all legal elements of genocide, and arrives at its conclusions through a responsible legal analysis, which critics should read in its entirety.

The fact is that the tragedy of murdered and missing indigenous women, girls, and LGBTQ people is the inevitable and foreseeable result of deliberate state policies expanding over 200 years.

These include: the earliest laws facilitating colonization; dishonouring treaties with indigenous nations; forced relocation to uninhabitable lands; a century-old residential school system intended to take “the Indian out of the child”; forced and coerced sterilizations; the ‘60s scoop; birth alerts and the incentivized removal of indigenous children from their families by child welfare services; the over-representation of indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system; decades-long boil water advisories in dozens of indigenous communities; mercury that slowly but surely kills people in Grassy Narrows; a colonial assimilationist Indian Act that denied indigenous franchise and legal representation and discriminates against indigenous women; and police abuse of indigenous women and failures to properly investigate their disappearances and murders.

These and other deliberate state policies, actions, and omissions culminate in the partial destruction of indigenous communities over the centuries and continue to the present, and can reasonably be argued to satisfy the intent aspect of colonial genocide.

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So, what do the findings of the report, and the similar (but also distinct) histories of our peoples, mean for Jewish communities in Canada?

We have a moral obligation to read, learn, and act on the recommendations in the report. This duty arises not only because human conscience demands it, and not only because Jewish teachings require it, but because our experiences of oppression mandate it.

Many in the Jewish community have intimate experiences of intergenerational trauma. Individuals and families who could talk about these experiences have often fared better than those who could not: this is a hard lesson our community continues to learn.

The parallels with indigenous suffering and intergenerational trauma are undeniable. This inquiry, then, is a precious gift of an opportunity to speak about and process trauma – including colonial trauma – sensitively and compassionately.

Michelle Audette, one of the inquiry commissioners, has noted that the report was not written to teach or to convince the indigenous women or families who testified – they are the real experts on this issue, and through decades of fierce advocacy, they have educated us and sought to bring about meaningful change.

We must sit with the findings of the inquiry, seek to understand them, and help to implement their calls for justice. As Jews, we have an obligation to fully integrate the experiences of indigenous peoples into our religious, educational, spiritual, and political lives. We are duty-bound to advocate for meaningful redress. If we maintain any denial, wilful blindness, or carelessness, we will fail at this task. We will be complicit.

As Marion Buller, the chief commissioner of the inquiry, explained, the report holds up a mirror to all Canadians, and we cannot shy from our own reflection.

All of us who live on land known as Canada, as well as its many indigenous names, already necessarily live in relationship with indigenous peoples who have called these territories home for thousands of generations. We must accept the responsibility of becoming better neighbours, and improving this relationship we inherit by way of living here.

The inquiry provides a blueprint for better relations. We should seize this opportunity and embrace it. Given our own history, continuing struggles, and also privileges, as Jews, we are uniquely placed to do this work. It is crucial that we do it, and that we are seen to be doing it. 

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