New government expected to act on Indigenous issues, thanks to tireless activism

CW: rape, violence against women, anti-Indigenous racism, police brutality

For those who still don’t believe that we urgently need a national inquiry into the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women, consider the following:

Earlier this week, it emerged that the British Columbia Minister of Transportation, Todd Stone, and staff working under him, as well as the deputy chief of staff in Premier Christy Clark’s office, had intentionally deleted government emails relating to the so-called “Highway of Tears”, a stretch of Highway 16 notorious for being the site of the disappearance and/or murder of up to 40 women, most of them Aboriginal women, over the past forty years.

The revelation further established the B.C. provincial government as an impediment to resolving the longstanding issue of #MMIW. In the province of Robert Picton and the Highway of Tears, one would think that the government would be more responsive to these concerns, but instead we see bureaucrats and politicians primarily concerned with covering their own asses – and perhaps the asses of law enforcement in the province as well. Just two years back, Human Rights Watch issued a report accusing the RCMP of systemically abusing and raping Aboriginal women in British Columbia, an allegation made on the basis of widespread specific accusations from Indigenous women and girls. The RCMP at the time did not comment on the allegations, and are the law enforcement agency currently tasked with reviewing the B.C. government’s handling of records relating to the Highway of Tears.

Though the timing was coincidental, the parallels with the B.C. situation are clear in a story coming out of Quebec today: eight officers with the Sûreté du Québec were suspended after allegations of sexual assault and abuse against Indigenous women.

In the Quebec case, the probe into the police was led by the provincial Ministry of Public Safety, but conducted by the SQ on its own members – a detail which hasn’t escaped the government’s critics.

These two examples are not isolated incidents. They’re part of a systemic pattern of behaviour. In this country, the lives of Indigenous people, and especially Indigenous women and girls, are considered by many, including many authority figures in government and law enforcement, to be worthless.

This has been a problem for a very long time. Indeed, total disregard for the value of the lives of Indigenous people is the foundational injustice of this colonial nation. The contemporary environment of extreme violence towards Indigenous women is but the latest manifestation in a multi-generational campaign of slow cultural and physical genocide against First Nations peoples. 

The push for a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women was launched into national prominence in large part due to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s inquiry into the residential school system, which was released this past June. Along with its landmark finding that residential schools constituted a form of cultural genocide, the Commission’s most prominent declaration from its 94-recommendation report was its call for a national inquiry into the issue, a demand which has been made by affected communities for years and years.

Through tireless activism, Indigenous causes like this one have reached a level of mainstream awareness which was once unimaginable. Indeed, in his victory speech on election night, Trudeau reiterated his commitment to a “renewed nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples that respects rights and honours treaties”, and he stated on multiple occasions over the course of his campaign that a Liberal government would convene a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women within 100 days of forming government.

He also committed, way back in June, to implementing all of the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (I’ve yet to see anybody point out is literally impossible for him to accomplish, given the nature of some of the recommendations, such as #58, which calls for an apology from the Pope, to be delivered in person in Canada.)

To me, that position always smacked of an overeager desire to appear to be a Good Ally. What likely motivated Trudeau to embrace First Nations issues was that they had become genuinely popular – which is to say, he saw political advantage in doing so.

And I’m not going to attack the guy for being a politician – that’s how the game works. I’m just saying that there’s reason to be skeptical of the Liberal Party’s commitment.

Grudgingly noting that past Liberal governments have “talked a good game” on Indigenous issues, the CBC outlines the ambitious scale of incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s policies regarding First Nations issues, and comes to the conclusion that he’s not gonna live up to his promises:

Federal Liberal governments do have a record of breaking promises when it comes to Indigenous Peoples.

After the 1967 pro-rights Hawthorne report, Pierre Trudeau committed to a “just” new direction on Indian policy.

But what he delivered was a 1969 white paper aimed at assimilation.

In 1993, the Jean Chretien Liberals drafted a progressive Aboriginal platform for their first election, but once elected completely ignored it and any semblance of Aboriginal rights.

In fact, soon after they implemented a strict funding cap that has resulted in a de facto decrease in resources for communities every year for the past 24.

Which is what the Liberal Party does – they make grand promises and sound very convincingly progressive and sympathetic while campaigning, and then, once in office, get back to the dirty unprincipled work of governing for the benefit of this nation’s wealthy elite.

I don’t doubt that Trudeau will call a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women – it’s great optics for his government, and provides an immediate sense of his new government’s change in “tone” – or even that he’ll implement many of the TRC’s recommendations. But all of them? Even if recognizing Indigenous rights to determine if, when, and how resource extraction will happen on their land conflicts with the needs and priorities of the Liberal Party’s friends on Bay Street and in the oil companies?

The current prominence of Indigenous issues, and the fact that an incoming Prime Minister finds it politically advantageous to pay homage to Indigenous rights, is the outcome of a lot of hard work and tireless activism. From movements like Idle No More and #MMIW to more localized agitation like the Unist’ot’en Camp and the battle by the folks at Shoal Lake 40 to get clean drinking water, Indigenous people have fought hard to get the issues which are important to them noticed and talked about.

Ironically, the hardened and dismissive attitude of Stephen Harper and his government only helped to fuel that fire.

Now, with a new Prime Minister in office, these activists and their allies must not let up the pressure at all.

Trudeau has shown that he can “talk a good game” – but this isn’t a game, not at all. This is deadly serious.

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