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Genocide against Indigenous women and girls continues | Pamela Palmater

Thursday, June 04, 2020 @ 1:48 PM | By Pamela Palmater

Pamela Palmater %>
Pamela Palmater
Under the guise of elections, holidays, pipelines and pandemics, genocide against Indigenous women and girls in Canada has been allowed to continue unabated with no plan to end it in sight.

Ending the decades long national crisis of racialized and sexualized abuse, exploitation, violence, disappearances and murders of Indigenous and women and girls has never been a priority in Canada. The National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls released its final report on June 3, 2019, finding Canada guilty of both historic and ongoing genocide. The federal government promised a national action plan within a year. As expected, it’s one year later. Canada has no plan.

Some might argue that it would be unfair to criticize the self-declared feminist and Indigenous-friendly prime minister who has dealt with a national election, nationwide protests and a pandemic all in the last year. However, this would ignore the fact that the crisis of abused, exploited, imprisoned, disappeared and murdered Indigenous women and girls has been Canada’s largest human rights crisis for decades now. It is important to remember that protests against the disappearances and murders started around 1991 and continued to grow in size and visibility annually. The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) was working on the Sisters in Spirit (SIS) initiative started in 2004-05 to document murdered and disappeared Indigenous women and girls and the root causes of the crisis.

NWAC’s research resulted in a database of hundreds of cases and linked the higher rates of violence to the intergenerational trauma of colonization and Canada’s law and policies, including residential schools, Sixties Scoop forced adoptions and the child welfare system to name a few. The SIS Initiative was followed by Amnesty International’s Stolen Sisters report in 2005 bringing attention to the long-standing social and economic marginalization of Indigenous women and girls, high rates of brutal violence and the failure of police to protect them. Amnesty referenced the 1991 Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba and the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples that raised serious concerns about violence against Indigenous women and girls. Canadian governments and agencies have known about this crisis for decades but have failed to take action to address it.

Canada’s continued failure to address state-based and societal violence against Indigenous women and girls has not gone unnoticed either. In 2014, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released its report: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia, Canada, which noted that the high rates of violence against Indigenous women is rooted in “discrimination, systemic and institutional bias, and political and public indifference.” The IACHR stressed the urgent need to address the impoverished socioeconomic conditions of Indigenous women in order to reduce their vulnerability to violence.

The United Nations (UN) has also made it clear in its numerous human rights treaty bodies that Canada has a positive legal obligation to take action to protect the human rights of Indigenous women and girls. The UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has clarified that the legal obligation of states extends to all forms of discrimination against all women, which includes state-based violence and violence by private actors against Indigenous women.

In its 2015 report on Canada, CEDAW concluded that Canada’s continued failures to address violence against Indigenous women and the serious consequences this has on their “right to life, personal security, physical and mental integrity and health” represented “grave violations” of their human rights. After decades of advocacy, marches, vigils and reports, Canada finally agreed to a national inquiry, which started in 2016. Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, told numerous groups of Indigenous women across the country that Canada would not wait until the final report to take action. Yet, that is exactly what they have done. Under the guise of “consultation,” the federal government has delayed taking substantive action to save lives, despite the fact that the national inquiry heard from 2,386 participants representing family members, survivors, experts and officials.

We’ve heard this all before. For decades, Canada failed to remove all of the sex discrimination in the Indian Act’s registration provisions despite numerous court cases instructing it to do so. Canada’s own inquiries and commissions have long called on it to address this, as did the IACHR and UN human rights treaty bodies. Yet, Canada always delayed the basic right to sex equality for Indigenous women under the guise of consultations, despite the fact that state-based sex discrimination was known as one of the root causes of violence against Indigenous women. The failure of all levels of governments and state agencies in Canada to address the ongoing root causes of the violence is why the national inquiry found Canada guilty of ongoing genocide.

Canada’s continued failures to take action is why some of us travelled to the IACHR in 2019 to ask for independent, international oversight of a transitional justice plan to transition Canada out of genocide, led by Indigenous women. Myself, Sharon McIvor who sued Canada for sex discrimination in the Indian Act, and Shelagh Day from the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) requested IACHR’s expertise in dealing with state perpetrators of genocide. NWAC also called on the IACHR to encourage Canada to take action. Canada’s response was that it couldn’t respond because it was in caretaker election mode. None of us was surprised. When have we ever seen a state perpetrator of genocide take responsibility for the genocide, let alone create and implement an effective plan?

The COVID-19 pandemic serves only as a cover to government inaction, while for Indigenous women and girls, the context of genocide and violence in which they live makes them all the more vulnerable to not only health and financial impacts, but even more violence. While Canada’s general pandemic advice has been to self-isolate at home, its failure to incorporate an Indigenous and gender-based lens on its pandemic measures fails to account for genocide and violence against Indigenous women. NWAC’s recent survey showed that not only are Indigenous women more fearful of domestic violence during the pandemic, they are in fact seeing increased rates of violence.  

At every step of the way, Canada neglects and devalues the lives of Indigenous women and girls, with no plans in sight to end the genocide. It should be no surprise then that the former commissioners for the national inquiry have called for international and impartial oversight of the implementation of their calls for justice in response to Canada’s continued delays. Here we are, decades after reports, inquiries and commissions and Canada is still consulting instead of working with Indigenous women and their governments to take urgent and substantive action to end the violence and socioeconomic marginalization.

The pandemic of racialized and sexualized violence continues. It is not only appalling, but it is illegal and government leaders should be held to account.

Dr. Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of Eel River Bar First Nation. She has been a practising lawyer for 18 years specializing in Indigenous and human rights law and currently holds the position of associate professor and chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University. She maintains her own political blog at

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