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Mister Politician Man

On Justin Trudeau’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is fond of saying that “reconciliation isn’t just a word.” But reconciliation without a rearrangement of power is colonialism by another name, one more weapon in the toolkit of the settler: arrival, theft, violence, reprisal, starvation, consolidation, forced integration, erasure, and now, the long hug. In 2015, Indigenous women accounted for 24 percent of all female homicide victims in Canada, and in 2019, Canada’s political and cultural gatekeepers debated what to call this.

Over the summer, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) declared that Canada had committed and was committing a genocide, situating the murdered women, girls, and Two-Spirit people—the thousands of deaths and disappearances that have likely gone unrecorded over the decades—in the larger context of the country’s treatment of Indigeneity. In the ceremony announcing the findings of the Inquiry, Chief Commissioner Marion Buller spoke:

The significant, persistent and deliberate pattern of systemic racial and gendered human and indigenous rights violations and abuses perpetuated historically and maintained today by the Canadian state . . . is the cause of the disappearances, murders, and violence experienced by Indigenous women . . . and this is genocide.

The flurry of coverage that followed, of an is-it-or-is-it-not variety, was ostensibly put to rest when Trudeau announced he accepted the findings of the Inquiry, stating that Canada had committed genocide, but taking care to employ the past tense in his acknowledgement so as to indemnify the government from certain legal liabilities. Throughout 2018 and 2019, many U.S. states, including Washington, Minnesota, and Arizona, acknowledged similar epidemics and took steps to build databases around their own cases of murdered and missing women and girls.

The gatekeeping response from across the Canadian political establishment is emblematic of what the new reconciliation industry will look like in the years to come.

A few months later, a new test of the Canadian government’s commitment to Indigenous reconciliation came to a head in the federal court system: the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal had ordered Ottawa to pay compensation to Indigenous children for its discrimination through the on-reserve child welfare system. Trudeau balked, and asked his Ministry of Justice to appeal the ruling through a judicial review, a slap in the face for Indigenous leaders. A member of the Gitksan First Nation, Professor Cindy Blackstock challenged Trudeau to live up to his previous words, to “accept all the Tribunal orders, drop [his] judicial review, and implement the Spirit Bear Plan,” which seeks to end discrimination in the Canadian Public Service and its discriminatory funding of First Nations child and family services.

That Trudeau consistently inhabits two political responses seemingly at odds with each other—acknowledgment and sabotage—represents a signature approach that appeals to a North American vision of how to deal with crimes of the “past.” Appending the label of “genocide” to our treatment of Indigenous peoples remains so subversive because it complicates the dominant imaginary, making it no longer a narrative of pain “allowed” to be spoken by Indigenous peoples, but a present-tense, multi-generational crime necessitating a program of reparations. The gatekeeping response from across the Canadian political establishment is emblematic of what the new reconciliation industry will look like in the years to come.

“Is that an act of genocide? Is it? Is it deliberate, do we want that to happen? Or is our government just that inept and has been that irresponsible to these people over all these years?”

These are the words of Roméo Dallaire, the retired Canadian general who famously led the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) before its disastrous devolution. When asked about the missing and murdered Indigenous women as genocide, he added, “I’m not comfortable with that,” that genocide must be “a deliberate act of a government to exterminate, deliberately and by force and directly, an ethnicity or a group of human beings. And that meant actually going and slaughtering people.” But Dallaire is wrong. The term genocide comes from the Polish jurist Raphaël Lemkin and was intended to reflect the multiplicity of ways that communities of human life can be erased. The manner of that erasure was never the primary concern. The United Nation’s 1948 definition of the term includes any of five acts—killing members; inflicting bodily and mental harm; imposing conditions of life calculated to bring about destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures to prevent births; or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group—committed with the “intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

One of the most effective ways to kill a culture is through violence leveled against women, and the disappearances and deaths of Indigenous women are not the only way this happens—consider the sterilization of Indigenous women in Canadian hospitals. We are predisposed to think of this as violence against individual bodies, rather than violence against a community. But the National Inquiry, like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on Canada’s residential school system before it, situates this violence as part of a creeping erasure of Indigenous life. The possession of Indigenous land, the theft of Indigenous children, the domination of Indigenous minds, has always required a semipermeable membrane with a haunting mandate: us in, them out, physically, biologically, and culturally.

The Inquiry outlines the crimes as part of a cumulative and living history, framing genocide in Canada as an act of the state “spanning decades and composed of numerous distinct acts and omissions which, in aggregate, violate the international prohibition.” This idea of omission is an important one. Canada’s domestic statute on genocide—the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act—allows failure to act to qualify as actus rea (material elements) necessary for proving genocidal conduct legally. What Indigenous peoples have argued is that Canada has created a permissive culture of Indigenous death, allowing perpetrators—sometimes themselves products of the communities that Canada has broken—to act with impunity.

One of the most effective ways to kill a culture is through violence leveled against women.

Those like Dallaire who use the ineptitude defense are making a case of non-intentionality—that yes, what has happened to Indigenous peoples is horrendous, but really just the product of a broken system, of unthinking or ignorant management. They not only misread the law, but miss the point that to be born a Canadian (or American) is to have your entire existence predicated on the subjugation of another. The Inquiry report presents this settler state violence as baked into a government’s functioning, contradicting the view that these deaths are the product of failure rather than design.

Formally accepting the label of genocide would place Canada in a group of modern self-designators that includes only Germany, Cambodia, and Rwanda. (Ukraine views the Soviet government as the perpetrator of the Holodomor famine; and the Serbian branch of the Bosnian government does not acknowledge the Srebrenica massacre of Muslims as a genocide, though the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia does). As you’d expect, then, objections to the term were out in full force after the release of the Inquiry report, usually taking one of two forms: appeals to historical accuracy and appeals to legal accuracy.

The former position argues that a recognition of genocide in the case of the MMIWG trivializes events like the Holocaust or the Rwandan Genocide. The most high-profile champion of this view has been Irwin Cotler, the Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which counts Alan Dershowitz as a senior fellow. In response to the Inquiry report, he said, “if we say everything is a genocide, then nothing is a genocide.”

Cotler is right that the slaughter of millions of Jews or three-quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population and the MMIWG are different stories, but his framing also privileges a certain type of suffering, never outright denying the character of the pain experienced by Indigenous peoples but refusing to admit it might befit the same gravity. This is a common impulse. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared the detention of migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico to concentration camps, it drew criticism from politicians and some gatekeepers within the Jewish community. Writing in Jewish Currents, Zoé Samudzi asked:

As we argue over terminology, we ought to ask ourselves: Is the typology affixed to a structure more important than the material conditions produced? Is the semantic distinction more critical than the urgency of our collective solidarity and intervention?

But we know that “genocide” is more than simply a word, it is also a site of sorrow. In a 2016 lecture at Glendon College, human rights lawyer Payam Akhavan spoke about the deleterious effects of this squabbling:

The Holocaust was a paradigmatic crime, and its legal representation as a transcendent concept made its potent historical legacy capable of appropriation by others. As the ultimate crime, calling the plight of victims “genocide” elevated their demands for justice to a privileged status. Yet, in the killing fields of Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, and today, in Iraq and Syria, we witness what are often sterile polemical debates on the genocide label, a pretense of empathy, creating the illusion of progress, while we remain bystanders to radical evil. We reduce the enormity of human suffering to the rationalist credo of law in self-delusional rituals that substitute lofty incantations for meaningful action.

The second argument against the “genocide” label in Canada revolves around the belief that the cases of the MMIWG do not pass muster legally. Some members of the legal community have landed on an alternative framing they feel is sufficiently even-handed: admitting that Indigenous peoples have suffered a “cultural genocide” as at least “a base,” but “fence-sitting” on whether these acts qualify as a legally-consistent full-blown genocide.

What this often misses is why the two terms are separate to begin with. Canada was one of the primary state lobbyists for the removal of “cultural genocide” from the U.N.’s original draft of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In a 1948 telegram, the Secretary of State for External Affairs in Ottawa wrote to the Canadian delegation at the Palais des Nations in Geneva asking them to spike the convention if it committed to including a prohibition on cultural genocide. It was ultimately left out of the definition. This has always been part of the colonist’s strategy: admonish indigenous peoples for claiming legal protections that were designed to exclude them, codify existing power through law, and then use it as a bludgeon against reparative justice. The Inquiry addresses this objection to the label directly, stating that it “believes that the debate around ‘cultural genocide’ versus ‘real’ genocide is misleading” and a reassertion of sovereignty over Indigenous suffering.

Rather than decry the designation of the epidemic a genocide, we should accept it, and see Canada fight to right its 1948 wrong.

This sovereignty idea is important because there are few domestic recourses available to Indigenous peoples; Canada has attempted to head off legal liability by being cautious about which tenets of international law it integrates into domestic legislation, ultimately only adopting two of the five acts included in the U.N. convention into their own law. Still, the Inquiry has provoked fear from some that its report obligates Canada to launch a national investigation into the ongoing crimes, or be investigated by the Organization of American States or the U.N. Human Rights Office. The gatekeepers would prefer we “address” this with federal policies that will always lie outside the control of Indigenous peoples; the “genocide” label is dangerous precisely because it pushes us to envision a scope of redress outside of this arena.

In the end, of course, this is about power. Political scholar Elizabeth Strakosch argues that the development and implementation of policy in settler states is framed as a second-order debate about responses to exert within the context of already-existing authority over Indigenous peoples, rather than what it is: yet another site where settler colonial sovereignty is reinforced. Here, the political language of “scandal” itself becomes a tool, resituating scrutiny within the framework of government; we end up debating the policies rather than the structure that implements them. This is often coupled with a prejudging of the Inquiry’s findings by claiming that it did not meet its burden of proof. Detractors will say otherwise, but this defensive posturing is often about making sure an investigation is never made.

Why? They are afraid that a new precedent might be set, that a competent international body will recognize, legally, that which makes sense to many of us morally. Rather than decry the designation of the epidemic a genocide, we should accept it, and see Canada fight to right its 1948 wrong, conceding the legal position that the slow, relentless erasure of culture through the traditional machinery of the state—schools, police, healthcare, child services—is a form of “elimination,” of social and political death. But this won’t happen. The government is doing what we expect governments to do in the face of such demands—delay, distract, debate.

When asked about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, the prosaic response from members of the Liberal Party of Canada tends to be a list. The Prime Minister has recruited the most Indigenous MPs and has elevated the most Indigenous MPs to serve in his cabinet of any Prime Minister in Canadian history; he has apologized for residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador; he has apologized for the Inuit tuberculosis outbreaks in the 1950s and 1960s; he has apologized for the hanging of the Tsilhqot’in chiefs; he has apologized for the relocation of the Sayisi Dene in Manitoba; he issues land acknowledgements before his speeches. But a land acknowledgement is just that, an acknowledgement—of land that was stolen, but also, of land that no one intends to return. His is an aesthetic politics—a feel-good deference to the language of change, coupled with the neutering of meaningful reforms.

It’s also impossible to decouple the treatment of Jody Wilson-Raybould, a member of the We Wai Kai First Nation who served as Trudeau’s Minister of Justice—and arguably the most important Indigenous politician in the country’s modern history—from the Prime Minister’s legacy on the “Indigenous issue,” as it is so often pejoratively circumscribed. After objecting to the government lobbying for a non-prosecution clause to protect SNC Lavalin, a corporation headquartered in Québec, Wilson-Raybould was demoted in cabinet and eventually removed from Trudeau’s party in a scandal that engulfed the country. Her ejection was tinged with Trudeau’s narcissism, of an “I made you, and I can unmake you” flavor.

It should have been unsurprising that a woman tasked with leading a Canadian justice system that had utterly failed her own people would be reticent to oversee its further dilution on the issue of corporate non-prosecution. But Wilson-Raybould’s humiliation was ultimately about far more than her “stepping out of line” in a Canadian political system that depends on deference to centralized leadership and “whipping” the votes of largely marginalized colleagues in the House of Commons. The Party’s response would have been different had she been someone else, had her behavior been a less visible marker of the hollowness of their own commitment to “reconciliation” with Indigenous peoples.

After the SNC Lavalin scandal broke last winter, the columnist Paul Wells wrote in Maclean’s about Canada’s insiderism, seeing the country’s politics as a vassal for the interests of the blue-blooded WASPs of Upper Canada and the Franco-Québecois and Anglo-Montréalais of Lower Canada. This isn’t a new point, nor is it a conservative dog-whistle; Wells was articulating the reality that our country is so often led by a small community of people, in some ways more insular than the warring cloisters of American politics. Why this matters to the MMIWG has everything to do with how this Canadian political imaginary interacts with Indigenous peoples—that is to say, rarely. Reconciliation (as conducted by the settler), then, becomes thought of and fought for in the battleground of the imagination: where do Canadians feel our relationship to our history is headed, are things seeming better, and, even more worryingly, how does that make us feel about ourselves?

In The Walrus, Martin Lukacs writes that this “moral feeling” has become a governing strategy for Trudeau’s Liberals. But it is more appropriate to say that this moral feeling is Canada’s new excuse, and the Liberals—always the triangulating centrists of Canadian politics—have simply perfected a political repackaging of an existing narrative. He adds:

But the transformation underway among the Liberal Party, government institutions, and the broader establishment was less a sea change than a shape-shift. Faced with an Indigenous uprising unlike anything in Canadian history, they were prepared to accept, and even help construct, a new public consensus—making a taboo of overt racism, cleansing our public squares of ugly tokens from our past, embracing the resurgence in Indigenous cultural expression, and adopting the language of Indigenous liberation. But, within this consensus, there were several great unmentionables: land, resources, power, and the sharing of any of it. Such a consensus would serve to contain and silence the transformative potential of Indigenous rights—held over vast territories, posing barriers to reckless extraction, and grounded in a vision of a different relationship to each other and the natural world.

This is why Jody Wilson-Raybould’s conscientious objection was so disconcerting to Canadian Liberals: insofar as she served as a stand-in for genuine understanding of Indigenous lives, it left many uneasy to see such a visible symbol of our purported reconciliation defenestrated by Trudeau, proof that the elevation of an Indigenous woman to one of the highest offices in the land was never about empowering her to begin with. For the Liberals, the only acceptable response to her spurning was to attack, gleeful at the early signs that she would lose her election standing as an Independent candidate. That she ultimately won should be a signal to Ottawa that Canadians saw courage in her position against the status quo. Trudeau’s treatment of Wilson-Raybould is a metonym for Trudeau’s treatment of the MMIWG: a cosmetic allyship meeting the cold, hard pavement.

Reconciliation (as conducted by the settler) becomes thought of and fought for in the battleground of the imagination.

Few Canadian politicians have fought the co-option of Indigenous reconciliation by the politics of self-preservation. Trudeau is simply the latest in a long lineage selling a combination of self-flagellation and self-care. The apology for residential schools for instance—finally issued by the previous Prime Minister Stephen Harper—was largely done out of legal obligation to an agreement struck by his predecessor Prime Minister Paul Martin, who himself was attempting to stave off a major lawsuit being brought by Indigenous survivors. In Martin Lukacs’s latest book, The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent, he counts the recent appeal of the Human Rights Tribunal compensation order as at least the eighth time the Liberals have fought judicial rulings in support of Indigenous reparations.

The fight against reparations exists on various fronts, however. After all, the courts are only one method of redress, and political demands are just as important as legal demands. The Inquiry includes 231 “calls for justice” directed at industries, institutions, media, health-care providers, educators, police, Correctional Service Canada and child welfare workers. In spite of Trudeau’s promises, it is unlikely these will be implemented in their totality or even partially, with a big tent party like the Liberals needing to balance various other political considerations. But imagine for a moment what it might it look like for reconciliation to instead transcend governance. Justice Murray Sinclair, who Chaired the TRC, wrote of “a systematic and concerted attempt to extinguish the spirit of Aboriginal peoples.” In this way, genocide is a crime against the soul of Indigenous life, situating its unimaginable world-destroying pain outside the Canadian political structure and hinting at a deeper, collective, almost spiritual obligation that remains owed.

In a cynical sense, this would suggest that Trudeau is, in fact, exactly the man the moment requires: the political figure most able to acknowledge the dimensions of genocide as mourning metaphor and wily enough to limit the dimensions of genocide as legal crime.

It is unsurprising that Indigenous peoples feel condescended to. After the Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency in July over its poisoned tap water, Indigenous singer Adrian Sutherland wrote a song called “Politician Man.” In it, he croons, “I get tired sometimes, I can’t take no more. You take half my heart and you still want more. . . . Lyin’ to my face, lyin’ to yourself, lyin’ to the people that you said you would help.”

And then he adds, “Hey Mister politician man, whatchu done for me lately?”