At MMIW report’s heart, a contradiction that’s impossible to ignore

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NationalPost.com – News – After $92 million spent, the commissioners don’t know who is committing violence against women — mainly because they didn’t try to find out

The reception afforded the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report into the residential school system four years ago was very different to that which this week greeted the final report of the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

There was widespread recognition across Canadian society that the residential schools were a dark stain on the nation’s history. Even when TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair said Canada had perpetuated a “cultural genocide,” on the grounds families were disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values, there was comparatively little fuss.

The mood was one of reconciliation — Sinclair called on the country to unite in an effort to build better relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Wab Kinew, now the provincial NDP leader in Manitoba, summed up the ethos: “Let’s learn about Aboriginal peoples and cultures so we can get on with the business of living together.”

But the spirit of compromise and mutual accommodation was entirely absent from the MMIW report. “We are investigating a past wrong but one that is ongoing and getting worse,” the report said, as it lamented acts of violence stemming from “colonialism and coupled with racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.”

If global headlines were the goal, then mission accomplished

Marion Buller, the inquiry’s chief commissioner, said there is an ongoing “deliberate, race, identity and gender-based genocide.”

This is, to repeat, not past government policy but, in the commissioners’ view, an ongoing conscious campaign of oppression by non-Indigenous Canadians like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose government has just introduced legislation to revitalize Indigenous languages.

The charge is being taken seriously outside Canada. The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, wrote to global affairs minister Chrystia Freeland Tuesday urging the creation of a panel of independent experts “to clarify the accusations and denunciations of genocide in your country.”

If global headlines were the goal, then mission accomplished.

But the commissioners may prove far less successful at achieving what should have been their primary goal: mitigating the threat to the safety of Indigenous women and girls.

After $92 million and 1,200 pages, the commissioners don’t know who is committing the violence against women — mainly because they didn’t try to find out.

The report says women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual) people are being targeted “from all sides” by partners, family members, acquaintances and serial killers, but it does not delve any deeper to qualify or quantify that statement.

The only statistical evidence is provided by a footnote citing a Statistics Canada report that provides partial answers.

That study looked at the proportion of Indigenous Canadians who were victims of eight crimes measured by the General Social Survey. It found overall victimization levels of Indigenous people were higher in 2014 than for non-Indigenous people (28 per cent versus 18 per cent) but that they had fallen 10 percentage points in the preceding five years — raising question marks over the commission’s claim that the problem of violence is getting worse.

Violent victimization rates were more than double those experienced by the non-Aboriginal population, and the rate for women was more than double the rate for Aboriginal men. A previous study from 2009 suggested men were the perpetrators in eight in 10 of such incidents in which women were the victims.

In addition, the report suggested Indigenous women were three times as likely than non-Indigenous women to report being a victim of spousal violence.

This is an issue that requires context — the history of childhood maltreatment, mental health problems, substance abuse, all of which are more common among the Indigenous population.

But the data, while less comprehensive than it should be, suggests a truth airbrushed by the commissioners: Indigenous men commit the majority of acts of violence against Indigenous women.

In an interview with my colleague, Maura Forrest, last month, Marion Buller conceded the point. “It’s not always an Indigenous male who commits violence against an Indigenous female. Let’s throw that stereotype right out of the door. That’s not always the case,” she said.

Not always, but most often. There are mitigating circumstances — crimes are committed by people for whom violence has become normalized, often because they themselves were victimized in childhood. The residential schools system’s legacy is with us still, affecting generations of Indigenous people and their children.

But the focus on sociology does a disservice to the victims. As Indigenous writer Robert Jago noted: “The salient fact about those attacking and killing Native women is that they’re criminals and the crimes they commit aren’t being taken seriously, and the victims are not being given any respect.”

It is a truism that the more the country has accommodated diverse cultures, the stronger it has become. The one big failure has been with its Indigenous population

There are concrete proposals in the report that could improve things: public education campaigns to challenge the normalization of violence; a national Indigenous rights ombudsman; police funding on reserves equal to that off-reserve, for example.

Unfortunately, those practical measures have been obscured by the incendiary language the commissioners used in their haste to apportion blame.

Canada is a success by any measure. It has developed a political system that works, despite its cultural and linguistic divisions.

It is a truism that the more the country has accommodated diverse cultures, the stronger it has become.

The one big failure has been with its Indigenous population.

It is long overdue that Native and non-Native cultures mutually accommodate and get on with the business of living together.

But the allegations of genocide are extreme, and they invite an equally excessive response from those with no interest in building a healthy relationship.

John Ivison: At MMIW report’s heart, a contradiction that’s impossible to ignore

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