The political quagmire of the prime minister accepting his country's complicity in genocide: Robyn Urback

If Trudeau is serious when he says "this was genocide," agreeing with the conclusion of the MMIWG report, legal proceedings will be forthcoming. If that doesn't happen, which is more likely, Trudeau sends a message about how serious he is when he calls the treatment of Indigenous people "genocide."

There will be broad geopolitical and domestic implications

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is serious when he says he agrees with the conclusion of the report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls — that 'this was genocide' — legal proceedings should be forthcoming. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The report produced by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) is a tome of failures.

Of stomach-churning analysis of child welfare agencies tearing children away from families (which goes well beyond the Sixties Scoop, with Indigenous children still, on average, 12 times as likely to be taken from their home as non-Indigenous children). 

Of multigenerational trauma that is allowed to fester in isolation, where a lack of mental and physical health services has contributed to a five-year-shorter lifespan, on average, for Indigenous Canadians than non-Indigenous Canadians.

And of course, of the failure to protect women and girls (as well as men and boys), and our collective inertia and relative unconcern over the suffering endured in these communities. 

Elsewhere on this site, Ontario-based lawyer Naomi Sayers explores the concept of exploitation as it relates to the MMIWG report, arguing that properly defining and understanding it is central to the struggle of finding justice for victims and survivors. She suggests the word "exploitation" ought to garner at least as much attention as the word "genocide" — of which Canada, according to the report's conclusion, is guilty, both in past and present. 

My colleague Neil Macdonald put words to the ideas none of us really wants to hear, that "benign indifference" on the part of some Canadians "prompted the MMIWG commissioners to deploy the incendiary accusation of genocide against Canadian society."

Macdonald's reasoning on that is probably correct, since even those who think the term "genocide" is misapplied are forced to consider Canada's treatment of Indigenous peoples to make an argument against the report's conclusion. Indifference is fuel to systemic injustice, and eliciting some sort of reaction — even incredulousness — is arguably better than nothing at all.

A woman holds a sign during the closing ceremony of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Gatineau, Que., on Monday. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Reasonable people can disagree on whether the term accurately applies to Canada today. For example, the outright racist laws of the past — such as Canada's eugenics laws of the early 20th century — are no longer on the books, but reports of coerced sterilization of Indigenous women in Saskatoon and elsewhere continue, to the same effect as the old laws. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's acceptance of the MMIWG report's conclusion — "we accept the finding that this was genocide," he said Tuesday — has broader implications than just making a point. 

To a certain degree it is ambiguous, hinging on what Trudeau's definition of "was" is. Does "was" mean "in the past, but no longer"? Or is Trudeau referring to all of the past and current conditions chronicled in the report when he says "this was genocide"? Either way, if the prime minister accepts that genocide was or is happening in Canada, shouldn't he say where and when, so that those responsible can be held accountable? 

Genocide is a legal term — a crime — which, according to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, shall be tried "by a competent tribunal of the State in the territory of which the act was committed." Countries that have ratified the genocide convention, which include Canada, are obliged to both prevent and punish the perpetrators of genocide.

This means that if Trudeau is serious when he says "this was genocide," legal proceedings will be forthcoming (the implications of which, needless to say, would be enormous). If they are not, which is the infinitely more likely course, Trudeau sends a message about how serious he is when he calls the treatment of Indigenous Peoples "genocide." This is the quagmire in which the prime minister now finds himself.

Investigating Canada 

On top of that, there will be broad geopolitical implications, some of which have already started to become evident. On Tuesday, Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, an international forum on justice and peace for 35 member states in the Western Hemisphere, sent a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland proposing the creation of an interdisciplinary group of independent experts to investigate the genocide charge stemming from the report.

"Given that your country has always sided with scrutiny and international investigation in situations where human rights are violated in different countries," he wrote, "I am expecting to receive a favourable response to this request."

Other organizations or governments might not be so cordial. Last summer, when Canada found itself in a diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia over a couple tweets about the kingdom's human rights record, the Saudis mobilized a social media campaign based on the notion that Canada is actually the more oppressive state, citing, among other things, data on missing and murdered Indigenous women. Should that happen again, the Saudis now have the word "genocide" in their arsenal, and they can cite it as coming directly from the prime minister's lips. 

Indeed, Trudeau's acceptance that Canada is a genocidal nation inevitably weakens our moral authority when lecturing the Chinese about gender equity, or the U.S. vice-president about abortion access. One could make the case that we never had that moral authority to begin with, since Canada's treatment of Indigenous people doesn't suddenly become worse because it has a new name. But a label does change the perception of Canada in the eyes of other nations, especially when the Canadian prime minister confirms the label is accurate.

It's plausible there will be a domestic effect as well. There is a faction of hysterical Trudeau-haters (no, not me — relax) who love to call him a "traitor," citing years-old gaffes and the very complicated decision to award a multimillion-dollar settlement to Omar Khadr. But this line — prime minister says his own country is guilty of genocide — could reasonably gain traction outside of typical "Turd-eau" circles. Indeed, the prime minister might find it hard to at once campaign on a positive image of Canada, while also charging it of committing one of the worst atrocities known to man. 

The irony in all of this is the Trudeau government has probably done the most, though certainly not close to enough, to improve the lives of Indigenous Canadians of any federal government in recent decades, but it will nevertheless wear the "genocide" label. But at the same time, it is just a word. And despite the real political implications for the government, it has little tangible effect on the lives of survivors. They're still missing their loved ones, or struggling for custody or trying to escape an exploitative situation. That's an added tragedy in all of this: the report, and its conclusion, is just words. 

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Robyn Urback


Robyn Urback was an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at: