Summary of the MMIWG Inquiry Final Report – by Harsha Walia

Jun 13, 2019

Following the National Inquiry’s release of its final report, we are sharing a summary written by Harsha Walia (the Power of Women Coordinator at DEWC for many years), initially shared with DEWC staff and members. As a testament to the brilliance, strength, and resilience of Indigenous women in the Downtown Eastside, we have interspersed this summary with photos that document their sisterhood, creativity, grassroots advocacy and leadership.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has released its 1200 page Final Report titled “Reclaiming Power and Place.” More than 2,380 people participated in the National Inquiry, which DEWC members and elders, along with other Indigenous women leaders in the Downtown Eastside, have been advocating for over 30 years. Many family members, families of the heart, and members have participated in the Inquiry by giving testimony and attending hearings of the Inquiry. Over 100 women contributed to Red Women Rising: Indigenous Women Survivors in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which was DEWC’s official submission to the National Inquiry as an organization with expert standing.

Following are some key takeaways from the report.
Mabel, one of the Elders who contributed to Red Women Rising, being blanketed by Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and Joan Phillip. Photo: Fatima Jaffer

Initial points

The Inquiry report is an attempt to find common-ground between many unique and individual experiences of colonialism and gendered oppression of colonialism, while being attentive to distinct experiences and best practices approach for Inuit, Métis, and/or 2SLGBTQQIA peoples.

The National Inquiry uses “Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people (people who are Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual)” to include non-binary people & people with diverse sexualities, and as explicit reminder of gender-diverse people’s needs.

Photo of Larissa by Vincent Chan
Larissa, who speaks to reclaiming her culture and two-spirit identity in Red Women Rising, prepares to dance. Photo: Vincent Chan

The Indian Act applies only to First Nations women, and not to Métis or Inuit. Métis people were particularly ignored by various orders of government, especially in providing services, particularly between 1885-1982. There is under-representation and a sense of erasure, or invisibility, of Métis communities under broader umbrella terms such as “Indigenous” or “Aboriginal”. Interference in the lives of Inuit and the imposition of laws, policies, and systems on Inuit by the Canadian state have largely been motivated by Canada’s assertion of sovereignty over Inuit lands and waters to secure political positioning & economic resources around the Arctic.

Violence, Colonialism and Genocide

The Inquiry’s mandate was to interrogate systemic causes of all forms of violence, and institutional policies and practices implemented in response to violence.

Violence is understood broadly – sexual violence and institutional violence (health care, child welfare, justice system). Violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people is not an individual problem, or issue only for certain communities. Violence is rooted in systemic factors, like economic, social, political marginalization plus racism, discrimination and misogyny, woven through society.

Colonization refers to processes by which Indigenous Peoples were dispossessed of lands & resources, subjected to external control, targeted for assimilation and – in some cases – extermination. Colonialism is a structure that includes many different events under the same destructive logic. Colonization sought to destroy the relationship between women and land and property, as well as women’s roles in governance structures, as it was understood in First Nations communities, and to replace this structure with a new, disempowering one that placed men firmly in charge. Other ways that colonization can be understood as gendered oppression: the regulation of gender identities and governance roles from missionaries to Indian Act to Northwest Mounted Police policing; residential schools, Sixties Scoop, child welfare; forced sterilization; gendered dimensions of Métis Scrip; and medical relocation among Inuit.

A sign held aloft in a Downtown Eastside housing march, 2007. Photo: Harsha Walia / DEWC Archives

The National Inquiry has come to the conclusion that violence experienced by Indigenous women, girls, 2SLGBTQQIA people amounts to genocide. Settler-colonialist structures enabled genocide. The final report frames genocide in legalistic and social terms, with another supplementary report on genocide forthcoming.

Indigenous Rights Through the Law

An absolute paradigm shift is required to dismantle colonialism within Canadian society, and from government and institutions. Canadian legal system fails to hold state actors accountable for failure to meet domestic and international human rights and Indigenous rights obligations.

From the framework of international law, The Inquiry finds violations of rights through seven international human rights instruments: UN Convention on Genocide; Racial Discrimination; Civil & Political Rights; Economic, Social & Cultural Rights; Discrimination against Women; Rights of Child; UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

A family selling bannock at the 2018 Women’s Summer Market. Photo: Christina Coolidge / DEWC Archives

Indigenous rights are rooted in underlying values or principles within Indigenous laws: respect, reciprocity, interconnectedness. Areas in which inherent rights are manifest for First Nations, Inuit, Métis women, 2SLGBTQQIA people: teachers, leaders, healers, providers, protectors. Relationships are key to both understanding causes of violence and to making changes to end violence in the lives of Indigenous girls, women, and 2SLGBTQQIA people. Initial encounters, especially when Indigenous people are most vulnerable, are met with derision, racism, and dismissal. Responsibility to shape relationship has been used to harm, rather than to honour, Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.

The National Inquiry believes that restoration of the rights of Inuit, Métis, and First Nations women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people is a pressing priority.

Experiences of Colonialism

Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people stated that oppression against them is primarily based on colonialism, racism, and gender, with other factors, such as education, income, and ability, sometimes coming into play. Indigenous Peoples experience poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, unemployment, and barriers to education and employment at much higher rates than non-Indigenous people. This is a result of colonial systems.

Women march against gentrification in the Downtown Eastside and the lack of safe housing. Photo: Harsha Walia / DEWC Archives

Four pathways that maintain colonial violence:

  • historical, multigenerational, and intergenerational trauma;
  • social and economic marginalization;
  • maintaining the status quo and institutional lack of will;
  • ignoring the agency and expertise of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.

Inter-jurisdictional disputes & jurisdictional neglect – coupled with failure to uphold Indigenous jurisdictions – results in inequalities and inequities in the provision of essential services to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people. Indigenous bands and councils who have authority through colonial law – such as the Indian Act – are generally seen as not representing all of the interests of Indigenous women, girls, 2SLGBTQQIA people. Self-determination is paramount, including in the delivery of services. In dealing with child welfare, the justice system, healthcare, police, schools, and even advocacy organizations, there is an institutional culture that individualizes challenges that women face, rather than recognize that these challenges are reflection of ways the institutions themselves contribute to barriers.

In contrast to much previous research that positions Indigenous women as “victims” in need of protection or saving, or that positions their experiences as “less than” knowledge gathered according to Western research methods, the Inquiry report centres these voices and wisdom.

Rights Violations

The Inquiry finds that, as holders of First Nations, Métis, Inuit rights, there are Indigenous & human rights violations in four areas: right to culture, right to health, right to security, right to justice. All of these rights are based on the foundational right to self-determination.

Right to culture:

Attacks on culture were historically carried out through residential schools and Sixties Scoop, disenfranchisement through the Indian Act, and child welfare systems, with ramifications and actions continuing (and ongoing) to this day. Canada uses child welfare to oppress, displace, disrupt & destroy Indigenous families and nations. It is a genocidal system that violates Indigenous rights to govern, is violence against families, disrupts connections, and is linked to violence against Indigenous women and girls. For Inuit, there are added impacts of mass centralization and relocation. For 2SLGBTQQIA people, there is a shift from the value of gender diverse people.

Tia Maria commands the runway during a community fashion show celebration. Photo: Vincent Chan

In settler culture, media representations of Indigenous women (like Queen, Indian Princess, and Squaw) are negative sexist and racist representations. Current media representations emphasize Indigenous women’s and girls’ so-called criminal behaviour or ‘high risk’ lifestyles that are presented as burdens on society.

Right to health:

Canada receives praise for universal health care, but Indigenous peoples’ lack of access demonstrates that the health system fails to meet needs of Indigenous peoples.

Colonial marginalization and violence further compromises health as evident in rates of suicide, overdose crisis, and lower life expectancy. Intergenerational trauma is the root cause of high rates of chronic health problems, interpersonal violence, and substance abuse.

Trauma flows through generations and is cyclical. Trauma contributes directly to the violence experienced by Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.

2SLGBTQQIA people face discrimination in accessing a broad range of services and in accessing services that are appropriate to their needs, including housing; health, mental health, and addictions treatment; child welfare; Elder care; policing; corrections; and criminal justice.

A newspaper article in 1994 showing Elder Reta Blind leading the Women’s Memorial March with medicines, which she continues to do each year. Photo: Vancouver Sun via Harsha Walia / DEWC Archives
Right to security:

The report focus on human security not state security. Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people experience socio-economic marginalization and a lack of safety due to colonialism and racist sexist policies. Forced removal from lands and communities, disproportionate poverty, barriers to housing, food, and education all increase the vulnerability that Indigenous women face.

The right to security means access to essential services in areas of health, housing, access to water, food, education, anti-violence services, and reduction of poverty. All of these services must be culturally-relevant and transform paternalism.

Reliable and consistent livable income, education and employment opportunities, and appropriate services for Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people is necessary to address socio-economic well-being and safety needs. The housing crisis is also a significant contributor to violence, and so adequate and safe housing is needed.

Power of Women demonstrate for 100% social housing at 58 W Hastings. Photo: Harsha Walia / DEWC Archives

The report also substantiates a correlation between resource extraction and violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people. Work camps/man camps associated with resource extraction industry are implicated in higher rates of violence against Indigenous women at the camps and neighbouring communities.

Right to justice:

Historically, the RCMP ensured the forced relocations of Indigenous communities; removed children from families to place them in residential schools and during Sixties Scoop; enforced laws that prohibited traditional spirituality; and enforced Indian Act governance structures including the pass system. This continues today. Failure of police services to ensure justice and protection for Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people through adequate and bias-free policing services, effective oversight and adjudicative mechanisms, and meaningful and accessible remedies for violence contributes to harm.

Police are not only indifferent to survivor experiences; First Nations, Métis & Inuit women are also criminalized due to poverty.

Many women and girls are afraid to report violence due to involvement with child welfare; are counter-charged when reporting violence; and face growing incarceration. Indigenous women, girls, 2SLGBTQQIA people in the sex industry do not trust police services to keep them safe due to criminalization of their work and the racial and sexual discrimination they encounter, as well as general social stigma attached to the industry in general.

Candles and roses honouring the missing and murdered at the 2019 Women’s Memorial March. Photo: DEWC Archives

Incarceration of Indigenous women and girls is colonization. Strip-searches are state-sanctioned sexual assault. Solitary confinement, maximum-security classification, separation of mother and child, and mandatory minimum sentences are also key forms of violence in prisons.

Calls for Justice

“Calls for Justice,” are not simply recommendations; they are legal imperatives. They are not optional. The Calls for Justice arise from international and domestic human and Indigenous rights laws, including the Charter, the Constitution, and the Honour of the Crown. Calls for Justice are premised on the fundamental notion that Indigenous women & girls should not be treated as victims but as independent human rights holders. Rights must focus on substantive equality, decolonization, Indigenous-led solutions and services recognizing distinct needs.

The National Inquiry previously issued 10 Interim Report Recommendations, of which 2 have been implemented, 4 partially implemented, and 4 have not implemented. It is of great concern whether the recommendations from the final report will be implemented, and for bureaucracies not to forget the people behind the stats.

The inquiry makes 125 Calls to Justice pertaining to human rights, culture, health, human security, justice, media, health service providers, the transportation and hospitality industries, police services, lawyers, educators, social workers, resource-development industries, the Correction Service of Canada, and Canadians in general.

Women participating in a march for International Women’s Day, 1998. Photo: DEWC Archives

Some key Calls for Justice:

  • All levels of government & Indigenous governments, in partnership with Indigenous Peoples, to develop and implement a National Action Plan to address violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.
  • All government policies must be in compliance with human rights obligations including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
  • All governments, and in particular Indigenous governments and Indigenous representative organizations, must take urgent and special measures to ensure that Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people are represented in governance and that their political rights are respected and upheld.
  • Establish a National Indigenous and Human Rights Ombudsperson, with authority in all jurisdictions, and to establish a National Indigenous and Human Rights Tribunal. The ombudsperson and tribunal must be independent of governments.
  • All governments to recognize Indigenous languages as official languages, with the same status, recognition, and protection provided to French and English. Governments must legislate Indigenous languages in the respective territory as official languages.
  • All governments to ensure that all Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people are provided with safe, no-barrier, permanent, and meaningful access to their cultures and languages in order to restore, reclaim, and revitalize their cultures and identities.
Women gather and bundle sage for the Women’s Artisan Collective. Photo: Ishta Devi
  • The federal government, in partnership with Indigenous Peoples and provincial and territorial governments, must develop and implement an Anti-Racism and Anti-Sexism National Action Plan to end racist and sexualized stereotypes of Indigenous women, girls, and2SLGBTQQIA people. The plan must target the general public as well as public services.
  • All governments to provide adequate, stable, equitable, and ongoing funding for Indigenous centred and community-based health and wellness services that are accessible and culturally appropriate, and meet the health and wellness needs of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.
  • All governments must immediately ensure that Indigenous Peoples have access to safe housing, clean drinking water, adequate food, safe and affordable transit and transportation services and infrastructure.
  • All governments to establish a guaranteed annual livable income for all Canadians, including Indigenous Peoples, to meet all their social and economic needs. This income must take into account diverse needs, realities, and geographic locations.
  • All governments to immediately and dramatically transform Indigenous policing from its current state as a mere delegation to an exercise in self-governance and self-determination over policing.
  • All governments to develop an enhanced, holistic, comprehensive approach for the provision of support to Indigenous victims of crime and families and friends of Indigenous murdered or missing persons. This includes guaranteed access to financial support and meaningful and appropriate trauma care, adequate and reliable culturally relevant and accessible victim services, and legislated paid leave and disability benefits for victims of crime or traumatic events, as well as guaranteed access to independent legal services.
  • All governments to establish robust and well-funded Indigenous civilian police oversight bodies.
  • Expand restorative justice programs and Indigenous Peoples’ courts, increase Indigenous representation in all Canadian courts, expand and adequately resource legal aid programs, create national standards for Gladue reports, and Indigenous-specific options for sentencing.
  • Sentencing: re-evaluate the impacts of Gladue principles on sentencing equity as it relates to violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people; consider violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people as an aggravating factor at sentencing; include cases where there is a pattern of intimate partner violence and abuse as murder in the first degree.
  • Media must increase representation and also take proactive steps to break down the stereotypes that hypersexualize and demean Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.
  • All governments and health service providers to provide necessary resources, including funding, to support the revitalization of Indigenous health, wellness, and child and Elder care practices. For healing, this includes teachings that are land-based and about harvesting and the use of Indigenous medicines for both ceremony and health issues.
Elder Sylvia sharing laughter with Rhonda on International Women’s Day. Photo: Jason Brawn
  • Support services for Indigenous women, girls, 2SLGBTQQIA people should have holistic understanding of safety rather than silos; cultural safety and Indigenous methods; mandatory training of front-line agencies, social workers, health care professionals and law enforcement.
  • All governments to recognize Indigenous self-determination and inherent jurisdiction over child welfare. All governments to prohibit the apprehension of children on the basis of poverty and cultural bias. All governments must resolve issues of poverty, inadequate and substandard housing, and lack of financial support for families, and increase food security to ensure that Indigenous families can succeed. Governments and child welfare services to immediately end the practice of targeting and apprehending infants (hospital alerts or birth alerts) from Indigenous mothers after birth.
  • All levels of government and child welfare services to reform of laws and obligations with respect to youth “aging out” of the system, including ensuring a complete network of support from childhood into adulthood, based on capacity and needs, which includes opportunities for education, housing, and related supports. This includes the provision of free post-secondary education for all children in care.
  • All resource-extraction and development industries to consider the safety and security of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people, as well as their equitable benefit from development, at all stages of project planning, assessment, implementation, management, and monitoring. All governments and bodies are mandated to evaluate, approve, and/or monitor resource development projects to complete gender-based socio-economic impact assessments on all proposed projects as part of their decision making and ongoing monitoring of projects.
  • Correctional Service Canada to take urgent action to establish (Healing Lodge) facilities described under sections 81 and 84 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act to ensure that Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people have options for decarceration. Furthermore, Correctional Service Canada to immediately rescind the maximum security classification; provide intensive and comprehensive mental health, addictions, and trauma services for incarcerated Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people; mother-and-child programming; end strip searches.
  • All Canadians to denounce and speak out against violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people, and decolonize by learning the true history of Canada and Indigenous history.
Hands raised at the Red Women Rising launch, singing the Women’s Warrior Song. Photo: Fatima Jaffer

The final report of the National Inquiry can be accessed in full here on our resources page or on the Inquiry’s website.