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Urgent action on genocide missing from federal party platforms

What does brave leadership look like? It means taking responsibility for genocide and treating it like a national emergency

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous PoliticsHuman Rights

Rally to raise awareness of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls along the Highway of Tears between Prince George and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Photo by Hanna Petersen.

The 44th federal election is starting to sound more like an American election than a Canadian one. Debate has increased over keeping or removing the ban on military-style assault rifles, the pros and cons of so-called “conscience rights” of doctors to refuse abortions, and mandatory vaccines. Meanwhile, Canadians and Indigenous peoples both are concerned about the many issues contributing to the genocide of Indigenous peoples. In fact, the majority of Canadians said that reconciliation with Indigenous peoples will influence their vote this election. So, where is the urgent action on genocide in the federal party platforms?

The report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released in June 2019, just months before the last federal election campaign got underway. Not only did the urgent crisis of genocide in Canada fall away in the media during the campaign and in political speeches, the federal leaders were not even asked a question about it during the first leader’s debate. Fast forward to the French language debate which took place in Québec on September 2, and we saw the federal leaders talk more about bridges and tunnels than Indigenous peoples. This is despite the fact in the last two years, anti-Indigenous racism in Québec’s healthcare system and sexualized violence committed by police against Indigenous women occupied the headlines for months.

If the debate in Québec is any indication, it doesn’t look like we can expect any substantive discussion on how each party plans to end Canada’s ongoing genocide against Indigenous peoples. Given that is the likely scenario, we then have to look at the party platforms to see what, if anything, has been committed. Not unsurprisingly, the only time the Conservative platform mentions genocide is in relation to the Uighurs in China. The party’s portrayal of the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls as “gaps in opportunity” as opposed to racialized and sexualized violence committed by governments, industry and society is shockingly disconnected from the lived realities of Indigenous women and girls. There is more in the Conservative platform about addressing gang violence and violence against animals, than the crisis of violence against Indigenous women. Tucked away between corporate training for Indigenous leaders and third-party financial management in First Nations, is a throw-away line about developing a national action plan with Indigenous groups to address violence against Indigenous women and girls.

The NDP platform includes a commitment to develop a plan in partnership with Indigenous peoples to implement the calls of the National Inquiry, without any specific timeline or budget commitment. It must be kept in mind that Indigenous women and girls have already been suffering through the Liberal’s endless engagement process on a national action plan. Does this mean we must suffer through several more years of “engagement” while Indigenous women and girls continue to go missing? While the NDP platform does at least reference the word genocide, it goes on to historicize Canada’s role by only acknowledging “our country’s colonial history of genocide and stolen lands” as opposed to accepting any responsibility to act on ongoing genocide. This is the same historicization used by both the Conservative and Liberal governments—a tactic which keeps genocide in the realm of apologies and monuments as opposed to taking urgent action to end the state’s role in ongoing violence, exploitation and dispossession of Indigenous women and girls.

Moving on to the Liberal platform’s “At-a-Glance” section, taking action against real estate speculators and boosting Canadian innovation appears to be a higher priority than ending the ongoing genocide against Indigenous women and girls. There is literally no mention of the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the Reconciliation summary. As for the Indigenous section, the platform reminds us that it was the Liberals who launched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and that two years after the final report, they shared a Federal Pathway document which they claim outlines “concrete actions” to end systemic “racism, sexism and economic inequality.” If elected, the Liberals promise to accelerate this pathway and create a standing federal-provincial-territorial table to coordinate this work. Someone might want to tell them that they forgot to include Indigenous governments and Indigenous women in this table.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a copy of the report presented to him by the commissioners of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Gatineau, June 3, 2019. Photo by Adrian Wyld.

While the Conservatives will prioritize pet abuse—because “Canadians love animals, now more than ever”—at least the Liberals and NDP have acknowledged that violence faced by Indigenous women and girls and will require some action to address it. It is also important to look at the whole of each platform to see whether their other commitments would support action to end the crisis or hamper it. The Liberal and NDP platforms include a focus on human rights that is entirely missing from the Conservative platform. The Liberals plan to strengthen the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) and prioritize the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)—a positive sign. The NDP platform confirms a national action plan for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples will be grounded in human rights and include ending sex discrimination in the Indian Act. The Conservatives, on the other hand, will attack basic human rights by amending the CHRA, empower “free speech,” and empower so-called conscience rights for doctors (likely to disallow abortions), for example. While Liberal and Conservative commitments to human rights would support action on murdered and missing Indigenous women, the Conservative plans would clearly hamper it.

These platforms all fall victim to chasing media headlines and what issues rank predominantly in the polls except when it relates to Indigenous peoples. The majority of Canadians care about reconciliation and want action by the government, but that does not seem to translate into campaign priorities. Instead of thinking about this election as an opportunity to confront Canada’s role in both historic and ongoing genocide, the parties instead present an à la carte of issues plucked right from the headlines, instead of a comprehensive strategy to get at the root causes. Band-aid measures offer temporary stopgaps that may look like solutions, but the blatant failure to address the underlying root causes of the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls guarantees the status quo will never change. Indigenous lives are being lost because politicians care more about getting elected than stepping up and showing brave leadership.

What does brave leadership look like? It starts by acknowledging that Canada is a state perpetrator of genocide against Indigenous peoples and that it has a moral and legal responsibility to end it. Brave leadership here means caring more about saving lives and ending ongoing injustices than worrying about criminal or civil liability for past and current wrongs. It means being an example to other states around the world and showing them how to take responsibility for genocide and treat it like the national emergency that it is. Such a leader would have taken advice and guidance from Indigenous peoples, including Indigenous women leaders and advocates, and developed a platform that links all the manifestations of genocide together in a strategy to end it.

This kind of leader would not only be open to outside assistance but would actively invite United Nations experts who have transitioned other countries out of genocide, to come to Canada and oversee our strategic plan in partnership with Indigenous governments. They would see international help not as a threat to Canada’s assertion of sovereignty over Indigenous lands, but as a measure of Canada’s commitment to international peace and human rights. Such a platform would be grounded in Indigenous laws and Canada’s domestic and international human rights obligations, including those contained in UNDRIP. The plan would show Canada how to address the legacy of its historic actions and its intergenerational impacts—like unmarked graves from residential schools—while also clearly outlining how it will end ongoing acts of genocide that are maintained by Canada’s laws, policies, practices, actions, and failures to act—like police sexualized violence against Indigenous women and girls. From here, the plan would link to climate change brought on by the destruction of Indigenous lands and the violence to Indigenous women brought by the extractive industry.

While the Liberal and NDP platforms offer some promise of action in partnership with Indigenous peoples—especially their commitment to implementing the human rights contained in UNDRIP—the Conservative platform is devoid of any concrete action on genocide and would no doubt make things much worse for Indigenous women and girls. The electoral choice for action on genocide comes down to voting for the Liberals or NDP. Status quo genocide should not be an option in a country committed to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Looking beyond platforms, it’s important to remember that the Conservatives have long denied Canada’s history of colonization and its genocidal intentions in relation to Indigenous peoples, including residential schools and murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. The Conservative position on the matter can be summed up in one infamous sentence by former Conservative leader Stephen Harper: “Um, it, it isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.”

That’s the decision this election.

Pam Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She is a longtime CD columnist, and has been a practicing lawyer for 20 years. Currently, Pam is a Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.

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