After former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 10-year war against First Nations, the environment, democracy and basic human rights; an overwhelming number of Canadians embraced political change and elected a Liberal government headed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Literally overnight, the language, symbolism and public messaging from the federal government changed. Trudeau announced that Canada would work cooperatively with First Nations on a “Nation to Nation” basis and, as part of this new relationship, that he would seek to undo some of the harm done by the Harper regime. To this end, he committed to review all the legislation imposed on First Nations during the last decade and seek to repeal any which offended constitutionally-protected Aboriginal and treaty rights. He further promised to implement all 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, TRC, report which highlighted both the atrocities committed in Indian residential schools and the lasting intergenerational impacts it has had on First Nations. This was a complete change from the previous prime minister who used his Cabinet to publicly vilify First Nation leaders and ignore the many overlapping crises in First Nations.
WATCH: Interview with Pamela Palmater Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada
One of the TRC recommendations included a national inquiry into murdered and disappeared Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Harper’s response to the United Nations’ recommendations for an inquiry was one of victim-blaming and denial of the crisis. Trudeau’s commitment to make the national inquiry his first order of business was a welcome development. True to his word, Trudeau mandated his ministers of justice, Indigenous affairs, and status of women to coordinate the effort. His commitment to women’s issues in general seemed to go beyond flowery words when he appointed 50 percent of his Cabinet ministers women. By all indications, it appeared that Indigenous women and girls could expect substantive action from this new government to address gender-based discrimination, which included addressing discriminatory legislation, inequitable social program funding, and the crisis of racism and sexualized violence. However, when several expected announcement dates about the inquiry passed without word from the federal government, many of us started to wonder whether Trudeau’s commitment to gender equality and a new relationship with First Nations would include Indigenous women.
Since being elected in October 2015, Trudeau has sent conflicting signals to Indigenous women. The mandate letters to his Cabinet ministers all said that there was no relationship more important to him than that with Indigenous peoples and directed them to act on this basis. Yet, the federal budget included no funding for the implementation of the Nation to Nation relationship, the TRC recommendations, or the review and repeal of discriminatory legislation.
On one hand, Trudeau did live up to his promise to start the national inquiry process by engaging in pre-consultations with Indigenous peoples on how to design the inquiry, but the start of the inquiry continues to be delayed. While the federal budget did include funding for the inquiry, it only set aside $40 million. By way of comparison, both the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission cost more than $60 million each. The Ipperwash Inquiry, which was limited to one event in one province, cost $13 million. This national inquiry is supposed to include investigations into every federal, provincial and territorial government concerning thousands of murdered and disappeared Indigenous women and girls spanning many decades. It is clear from this budget that Trudeau does not expect a fulsome inquiry.
The biggest challenge facing this inquiry is not the budget or the announcement date, but the discriminatory attitudes about Indigenous women and girls that is deeply ingrained in every level of government, police force, social service agency and institution. It is so ingrained, in fact, that it is hard to imagine that there is very little hope that this inquiry can start off on the right foot—unless Trudeau moves quickly to put actions behind his nice words.
For starters, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the federal government provides much less funding to First Nations children in foster care than to Canadian children—primarily because the children are Indigenous. This resulted in the severe over-representation of Indigenous children in care. While Trudeau’s government promised not to appeal the decision, it is now six months later and they have failed to abide by the decision attracting criticism from the Tribunal and First Nations. The message Trudeau sends is that First Nation children are not entitled to, at a minimum, the same treatment as Canadian children. We are left wondering how many more children’s lives must be destroyed while they wait for equality—simply because they are Indigenous?
Trudeau’s failure to once and for all eliminate or amend all of the sections of the Indian Act which discriminate against Indigenous women and their descendants guarantees that Indigenous women and children will continue to be denied essential social services, are more likely to live in poverty, be denied access to education, have their children forced into foster care, and be excluded from participating in decisions impacting their First Nations.
Despite the fact that the Canadian courts and United Nations human rights bodies have very clearly found the registration sections (those which determine who is an Indian) to discriminate against Indigenous women, Canada refuses to amend those sections. Canada could literally eliminate or amend those sections within a matter of weeks if it was truly committed to gender equality, but it seems that gender equality is for everyone but Indigenous women under this government. No national inquiry can be considered legitimate when one of the well-known and documented root causes—gender discrimination in the Indian Act—is allowed to continue. Delayed equality is not equality.
While some make think it’s not fair to judge the inquiry before it starts, I can’t have faith in a process that is conducted within this racist and misogynistic context when the remedies have been laid out, in detail, by First Nations, Indigenous women’s groups, Canadian courts and the United Nations.
This makes me wonder if discrimination against Indigenous women and their children is so institutionalized in Canada that even the inquiry’s scope will be constrained by these discriminatory attitudes. Harper denied there was a crisis. The province of Quebec’s officials said there was no crisis and recently the province of Manitoba indicated they would not participate in the inquiry. Most recently, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett seemed to back away from the notion that the inquiry would hold anyone responsible for the thousands of murdered and disappeared Indigenous women and girls. Instead she indicated that the goal is to take a broader approach and look for patterns. Unless Trudeau steps up, the inquiry will be constructed on the same discriminatory basis as what led to the crisis—the idea that Indigenous women and girls are of less value than everyone else.
I think we deserve better.
Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is an Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.