The Sunday Magazine

The MMIWG report is a catalogue of catastrophe and a horrific indictment of failure — Michael's essay

"The report describes in grisly detail what has been inflicted on Indigenous people over the years. Yes it is awful. But is it genocide?”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a copy of the report presented to him by commissioners Marion Buller, centre, Michele Audette, third from right, Brian Eyolfson, second from right, and Qajaq Robinson at the closing ceremony for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

by Michael Enright

The report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is a catalogue of catastrophe. It stands as a horrific indictment of failure. Failure at all levels and by all governments to reach a truly meaningful accommodation and reconciliation with Canada's indigenous population.

At first glance there does not seem to be one institution that has not failed Indigenous people in some way. Whether it is law enforcement, our social safety net, our system of education, the criminal justice system or the provision of adequate housing and health care, failure is the operative word. In 2019, hundreds of Indigenous people living on reserves still have to boil water for drinking and cooking. Officials admit the situation won't be entirely cleaned up until 2021.

Politically, the malodorous Indian Act is a racist document which boldly discriminates against Indigenous women and their marital and tribal rights. All it would take to change the Act or get rid of it altogether would be an Order in Council by the Cabinet; yet it doesn't happen.

Generations of Indigenous children have been systematically deprived of quality education readily available to white children. The majority culture has created hateful stereotypes of Indigenous people, especially its women. The term "drunken Indian" is a shameful part of the vocabulary of racism. They have been denied their very personhood.

The report describes in grisly detail what has been inflicted on Indigenous people over the years.

A woman listens to speakers during ceremonies marking the release of the report on the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls on June 3, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Yes. It is awful. But is it genocide? Politicians, including the prime minister, twisted themselves into pretzels trying to avoid calling it a genocide, then reversed themselves, saying yes indeed it was. Unfortunately for the report, everybody in the country focused on the one word. Every talk radio and television show featured expert commentators parsing the meaning of the word and its usage. Every newspaper I could get my hands on and almost every columnist, honed in on the word. Tanya Talaga, the Indigenous issues columnist for The Toronto Star and Massey Lecturer, wrote that of course it was genocide.


The problem with the term is complex and goes beyond mere pedantry. Its utterance has now become the most telling element in the fabric of the report. It has become a distraction. We might not be able to cite three recommendations of the report, but we have come to recognize that what happened to these women was supposedly genocide.

The second problem is the act of genocide itself. Genocides are not inadvertent. They are not accidental. They take planning, complicated coordination, meticulous execution. A genocide has to have intentionality.

Genocides, such as the Ukrainian famine in the 30s which killed millions, and the murder of six million Jews, had to be carefully planned. In order to see these tragedies as genocide, we would have to believe that a Canadian government or governments sat down, planned and plotted the methodical slaughter and mass kidnapping of Indigenous women.

It might be argued that the residential schools were a form of cultural genocide to "kill the Indian in the child."  But that is a different context.

There are no numbers indicating how many murdered and missing women there have been. Guesses reach 4,000 and higher. We do know that genocides in Bangladesh, Rwanda, Armenia and Cambodia wiped out hundreds of millions of people. I have to wonder what descendants of the victims of the Armenian genocide or the Shoah or Cambodia think when they hear the word in a domestic context.

Words have meaning, as Orwell keeps telling us. And the meaning is important. What happened to those murdered and missing women is a tragedy of staggering horror. What it was not, is a genocide.