OTTAWA — Families of the Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered across Canada joined First Nations leaders and federal officials to mark the end of the national inquiry, with the hope that the findings released Monday will help close the door on another dark chapter in Canadian history.
“It’s closure for the past, but it still opens up doors for many things to come, many more improvements,” said Marilyn Courchene, who is a councillor in Manitoba’s Sagkeeng First Nation.
“The people have witnessed the prime minister, that he did acknowledge that we will move forward with new things ahead and not dwell on the past… He has to keep his word, he just said it to Canada,” she said.
The closing ceremony happened in the same space across the river from Parliament Hill that the inquiry was launched from in 2016. Emotions were raw as hundreds of family members and survivors of the systemic and institutional discrimination, violence, and racism described in the 1,200-page report gathered to hear what the inquiry found.
The top-line finding is that Canada’s history and process of colonization have perpetuated violations of Indigenous people, including “assimilationist and genocidal government laws” leading to high rates of violence against Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit and LGBTQ people.
The findings include 231 recommendations for change, including creating an ombudsperson and tribunal for Indigenous and human rights, long term funding for education and awareness programs related to preventing violence, policing and criminal justice reforms, and stopping the apprehension of children based on poverty and cultural bias.
Truths presented to Trudeau
During the ceremony the report and what the commissioners called the truths within it were wrapped up as part of a Tikinaagan ceremony and passed on to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who vowed to act on the findings.
A Tikinaagan is a cradle board used to carry babies in. The report was placed inside one specifically made for today, adorned in floral beadwork, said to be done to protect the truths within the document and to symbolize the birth of a new nation. The pages were then touched with tobacco, cedar, sweetgrass, and sage, which are considered sacred medicines meant to heal.
“You have my word that my government will turn the inquiry’s calls for justice into real, meaningful, Indigenous-led action,” Trudeau said to applause.
During his remarks, Trudeau spoke of the intense pain relived by families over the course of this inquiry, and vowed that the federal government will no longer fail Indigenous people as they have in the past.
He stopped short of using the word “genocide” but said the government will develop a national action plan to address the violence against Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit and LGBTQ people. It remains to be seen whether this plan will be completed before the fall federal election, which is now just four months away.
“The work of the commissioners, the stories they have collected, and the calls for justice they have put forward, will not be placed on a shelf to collect dust,” Trudeau said.
“We must continue to de-colonize our existing structures, and the racism, sexism, and economic inequality that has allowed such violence against Indigenous women and girls to prevail must be eradicated.”
It was at this point that a voice in the crowd yelled out the word “genocide.”
The prime minister was joined by his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and several members of his caucus at the ceremony. Among the members of cabinet sitting in the crowd as they heard calls for accountability for their actions and the actions of the politicians who held their roles before them were Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan, Indigenous-Crown Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, and Justice Minister David Lametti.
Closure, justice for some
Families who were open to speaking to their experiences and their impressions of the day were mixed on whether the national inquiry and its final report will bring the kind of closure or justice that they have been pushing for.
“It’s been a long time coming. We haven’t been heard for a long time but this is just a beginning,” said Geraldine Gauthier, whose sister Lynn was killed by her boyfriend in 2000.
“It’s a very, very emotional day today for me. It’s like all the memories coming back of what happened to her and just seeing all the people around, all the other women… It’s been a good day so far,” Gauthier said. She said she is optimistic the inquiry’s work will bring justice system reforms and that if anything, today may serve as “justice for those that don’t get it.”
“For myself there is never closure but I am here for my daughter… to keep her memory alive,” said British Columbia mother Mary Jim, holding a photo of her daughter Tyeshia Jones, who was killed at age 18 in 2011. Her killer pled guilty to second degree murder of her daughter and another woman and was sentenced to life in prison in 2014.
“Justice to me is the killer going through what he put my daughter through. That’s justice. I have to go to her grave site… that’s not the way it should be,” she said.
The hours-long event was interspersed with cultural performances from Indigenous youth and elders.
Tears were wiped and heads bowed during a minute of silence in memory of those lost. There were videos played from families and grandmothers that included core messages of “taken, not forgotten,” “they matter,” and “the violence must stop.”
Many guests were wearing red and other traditional attire. Red has become a symbolic colour to honour the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Over the years red dresses have been hung in trees across Canada meant to draw attention to what has been reported to be more than 1,200 Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit and LGBTQ people that have gone missing or have been murdered.
Through the grand hall of the Canadian Museum of History were pieces of art from what’s called the “legacy archive,” a collection of pieces made or donated by families and survivors.
Among them was a dangling heart puzzle collage from participants in the first annual Sisters in Strength wellness retreat in 2017. It includes memorials to lost loved ones. There was also a missing puzzle piece, meant to symbolize how families live the rest of their lives with a piece of their heart missing.
Family members have been calling for a national inquiry since 2004. That’s when the Stolen Sisters report was released, and a group of families came to Parliament Hill calling for the federal government to take action. Since then there have been initiatives such as Gladys Radek’s cross-Canada “WalkJustice” that took a path along the so called “highway of tears” in British Columbia where her niece Tamara Chipman went missing.
“My daughter matters. This is what the families told us across Canada,” said commissioner Michele Audette. “We are giving you the best recipe that women shared with us, that families gave us… We need to change, right now,” she said.
Call for full implementation
All four of the remaining commissioners spoke at the closing ceremony. There had been five commissioners when the process began, but one resigned in 2017, as did a handful of others involved in the process over the course of the last three years. This was just one troubled aspect of what became a considerably criticized process that resulted in some families calling for a “hard reset.”
Chief commissioner Marion Buller said that it is now imperative that various levels of government and other institutions to fully implement the calls to action contained within the report.
She began her remarks by acknowledging and welcoming the spirits of the missing and murdered into the room, and thanking all those present who took part in the Inquiry process.
“You have started to rewrite Canadian history in a good way,” Buller said. “We all are the solution.”
She said that it was impossible to not conclude that what has happened amounts to “genocide” and that it will continue unless changes are made.
Buller also implored all Canadians to read the report in its entirety, and to stand up and speak out when they witness racism and discrimination in Canada.
“Today the commissioners and I hold up a mirror to Canada,” she said.
Speaking with reporters later, both Buller and Audette emphasized that it’ll be on others to keep the momentum going after their mandate expires at the end of this month, and after the federal election.
“It doesn’t stop the movement. Because of the movement there’s an inquiry,” Audette said.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Monday that if his party was to form government, it would develop and implement a national action plan to “achieve measurable improvements,” such as standardizing police case protocols.
“Conservatives will carefully review the details of this final report and continue to hold the Trudeau government to account to ensure that the inquiry’s report results in closure, peace and solutions for the victims’ families,” Scheer said. “May today mark another important step in the reconciliation process, towards a safe and just Canada for all.”
Three years in the making
Perhaps an indication of how much can change in three years: Independent MPs Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould were present. Both were ministers who participated in the launch event, and they were thanked by some for attending today.
“The words of the report are very important,” said Wilson-Raybould, adding that many of the calls to justice are to address issues that are already well known at the time she helped launch the inquiry.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done and we should have been farther along in doing it,” she said. Asked whether Trudeau should have called these cases of Indigenous people going missing and being murdered a genocide, she said that no matter what you call it, focusing on words isn’t going to help Canada move ahead.
“A lot more should have been done… Concrete actions and investments should have been taken a long time ago and we would have been in a very different place today had the government done that,” she said.
The initial announcement of the Inquiry came August 3, 2016. Just over a year later, after family hearings and expert testimony had begun to be heard across Canada, the interim report was released. It highlighted the difficulties the inquiry was experiencing, such as the lack of supports available, and implored all levels of government to work better together and with Indigenous governance to more effectively apply exiting recommendations from past reports.
The commissioners then requested a two-year extension. The federal government instead gave them six months, pushing the initial November 2018 deadline to June 2019.
Asked what the difference being granted more time would have been, Buller said the inquiry was able to chip away just at the part of the iceberg above the waterline, not what lies below.
Though, minister Bennett defended the amount of time given.
"It was very clear to us at the beginning that the families and the survivors didn't want this to go on forever. They wanted us to get on with the concrete action," Bennett said. "We can't let the families down."