A Game-Changing Inquiry

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles about the conclusions of Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) inquiry. You can read the first one here.)


Why does the MMIWG inquiry declare a “Canadian genocide”? Why raise such a storm of controversy over a word when they could “find” that the deaths and disappearances of thousands of indigenous women and girls results from widespread violence, rooted in colonialism? Why insist on so provocatively locating the cause of this ongoing disaster in the attitudes and practices of us — average readers — instead of in the violence of the men who assaulted and killed those women and girls?

The MMIWG report accuses us of “genocide.” That term is incendiary in itself, but the report goes even further:

Genocide is the sum of the social practices, assumptions, and actions detailed within this report; as many witnesses expressed, this country is at war, and Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people are under siege.

If this is war, how will we make peace with our neighbors? The MMIWG report offers itself as a way, or at least a beginning.

Cover: National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

From its cover, through its images — and especially the two photographs of witnesses tightly hugging inquiry commissioners — to the presentation of its recommendations as “Calls for Justice,” this report is aspirational.


The cover is an image of a “star blanket community art piece” superimposed over a faded but visible work of flowers, symbols and hand-written phrases.

Such details are important. This report wants to change readers, and through us, it wants to change the patterns of human relations that we call law, society and politics. Calling its report “Reclaiming Power and Place,” the MMIWG aims to reach back to a pre-colonized moment and, there, to re-claim a role for non-male Indigenous people within First Nations communities and Canada as a whole.

I’m going to read this report slowly over the next two months. Today, I am starting with the report’s Executive Summary, which is where the MMIWG inquiry asks us to start.

Our careful reading will take time because the report is long, complicated and controversial. The full report is 1,200 pages, including what it calls “deep dives” into complex socio-political matters, plus a volume of legal argument in support of the commissioners’ use of the term “genocide.” I’ll provide a subjective commentary on this report because I want to understand its contents, its method, its “Calls for Justice,” and the transformative work it aspires to achieve in our collective lives.

I do not like being implicated in a “genocide” (only a sociopath would). I want to understand what the MMIWG inquiry is trying to tell me. And I want to be a better citizen and neighbor to the people of Eskasoni, Potlotek, Membertou and all Indigenous people in Canada.

This is personal, and the MMIWG inquiry wants it to be.

I’m fascinated by inquiry reports and I have been my whole adult life. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the inquiry into the Westray coal mine disaster that killed 26 men in 1991, and I wrote a book with particular focus on the inquiry into the sinking of the oil rig Ocean Ranger — a disaster that took the life of my brother Jim, and 83 of his co-workers. I am interested in the policy findings of such reports — as noted, the MMIWG inquiry refers to their recommendations as “calls for justice.”

More deeply, I hold that the true power of an inquiry lies in its process and the story it tells. Inquiries open up a deep social problem to put all of its parts on public display, and then they gather the pieces into a narrative that tries to turn its readership from an obsessive and repetitive fixation on the past to a healthy and optimistic project of reform. Often this narrative turn from past to future, from memory to action, is conservative; this is why inquiries have the reputation of being ways the dominant culture “white-washes” its deepest problems and sustains the status quo.

The MMIWG inquiry is determined to avoid that fate, and thus the deployment of the term “genocide” is, at least in part, a strategic move.


I do not like being implicated in a “Canadian genocide” in part because I am some kind of patriot, and because I do not believe that so-called “settler culture” is either monolithic or bereft of inherent goods. I am a professor who studies and teaches predominantly “western” literature and philosophy, and receives a pay check from “King’s College,” after all. I am literally invested in “settler culture” and I want it to change insofar as it is oppressive for Indigenous people and anyone else.

All that said, I am disturbed by the argument over “genocide” for another reason: I wonder if we do not lose those Missing and Murdered people yet again when we turn their memories to political purpose? I feel something similar when I am called to loud protest on the anniversary of the murders of women engineering students each year, on December 6. Whipping up grief and then deploying that energy for political ends can be exploitative. In the Executive Summary of the MMIWG report, the commissioners emphasize the “Calls for Justice” (i.e., what would in other reports be “recommendations”) over commemoration. This is a strategic decision: all the emotional energy generated in the testimony at the National Inquiry is gathered into a political thunderbolt to be hurled at the federal government, and even the prime minister in particular. I am not saying they don’t deserve it, but I am wondering what we lose of those missing and murdered girls, women and 2SLGBTQQIA people, as people, when we turn their deaths and disappearances into a rallying cry.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaking about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Ottawa Oct. 2016. photo: Delusion23 CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Even at this early point, I think it fair to say that the MMIWG inquiry report is a game-changer in Canadian inquiries. It was intended to be: its mandate called for a change in procedure from a more conflict-based or antagonistic approach to a trauma-informed and witness-centric one. The direction to the MMIWG inquiry at its creation was to set up a process that was “informal and trauma-informed,” respected the diverse traditions of Indigenous peoples, promoted reconciliation, contributed to public awareness and provided participants opportunities to share their experiences and views on ways to increase safety.

Here is what the mandate directs the MMIWG inquiry to do:


The inquiry is directed to:

  • recommend concrete actions to remove systemic causes of violence and increase the safety of Indigenous women and girls in Canada
  • recommend ways to honour and commemorate missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.


The inquiry is mandated to set up an inquiry process that, to the extent possible:

  • is informal and trauma-informed, respecting the individuals, families and communities concerned
  • respects the diverse cultural, linguistic and spiritual traditions of Indigenous peoples
  • promotes and advances reconciliation
  • contributes to public awareness about the causes and solutions for ending violence
  • provides opportunities for individuals, families and community members to share their experiences and views, including their views on recommendations for increasing safety and preventing or eliminating violence

The commissioners dropped the quasi-judicial approach of other inquiries and adopted an expressly activist approach. Their expressed goal is to channel energy into an impetus for change — not policy change alone, but a change in culture, in the broadest sense, both in “settler culture” and in Indigenous culture(s). The commissioners want Canadians to be worked up over the use of the term “genocide” because they need to be the inquiry that finally gets a broad base of interest from the Canadian public. At the same time, they aim to make the legal case.

As they explain in their overarching “Calls for Justice”:

…changing the structures and the systems that sustain violence in daily encounters is not only necessary to combat violence, but it is an essential legal obligation of all governments in Canada.


This is an unusual inquiry report: it begins with a claim that Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people have been the “targets” of violence “for far too long.” Instead of presenting their evidence and drawing it together in a narrative that leads up to policy-improving recommendations, the MMIWG report asserts: “This truth is undeniable.” Racist policies and presuppositions among enforcement, medical and social work officials have resulted in little reporting, record-keeping, and investigation of these deaths and disappearances. The facts, then, are both “undeniable” and inaccessible.

Jenny Lay and Isabel Daniels (with daughter Fatima), MMIWG hearings, Winnipeg. (Source: National Inquiry into MMIWG.)


The MMIWG is game-changing in its express dependency on “truths” that were shared by witnesses in testimony. Unlike reports into other politically-rooted social ills, like the workplace catastrophes that I have studied, the MMIWG report does not draw hard causal lines that link the negligence of a particular individual or set of individuals with the harm of particular victims. Instead, the MMIWG report locates the perpetration of the genocide in the very fabric of “settler culture.” Rather than “proof” gathered out of a quasi-conflictual testimony and cross-examination, the MMIWG promises that in the full report we will read the “truths” that were shared in the hearings by hundreds of witnesses, and from which the commissioners project “thousands of stories,” that they then gather together as “acts of genocide…” (Commissions of Inquiry do not have the same burden of truth as Criminal Trials. The MMIWG inquiry adopted a “do no further harm” approach, so witnesses could be questioned but in a “non-traumatizing manner.” In this, it follows from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.)

In the Executive Summary, this witness-centered (rather than cross-examination-based) opening is followed by a selection called “Defining Genocide.” Here they present a very brief summary of what we might call “socio-political” definitions of genocide, in contrast with the legal definitions that the report later draws on to make its case that Canada has a legal obligation to make a “paradigmatic” change. Here, to repeat, the report reminds readers of the broader socio-political definition:

Genocide is the sum of the social practices, assumptions, and actions detailed within this report; as many witnesses expressed, this country is at war, and Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people are under siege.

They continue to note that the “Canadian genocide targets all Indigenous peoples,” but especially non-men. The agent that “targets” is not a particular individual or group, but rather, it is “Settler colonialist structures enabled this genocide.” The genocide is for most of us a kind of complicity, or a bystander responsibility, based in ambient “colonial violence, racism and oppression.”


The MMIWG leads with such a strong claim because the urgency of Indigenous peoples’ suffering and exclusion from basic human rights combined with the complacency of “settler culture” demands it. Their dependence on the “truths” shared in the National Inquiry hearings is both a decision to honor the experiential knowledge of marginalized people, and to make up for the lack of evidence of the kind that is usually available in Canadian inquiries. The Executive Summary explains that “previous reports” have resulted in “very limited movement to implement recommendations.” The MMIWG commissioners were clearly determined to make sure that their report does not grow dusty on a shelf beside all the quasi-scientific studies that preceded it. Following their mandate in spirit into a paradigm shift not only in who they listened to, but how, and what standards of evidence they required to consider testimony admissible, they determined to follow the Canadian Human Rights Commission:

…Indigenous women and girls should not be treated solely as victims, but as independent human rights holders.

The MMIWG inquiry simultaneously argues that it can and should reach back to a pre-colonized culture and that it is authorized in this by “rights” as defined in an evolving European socio-legal understanding. Even at the earliest point, in the French Revolutionaries’ declaration that all men have rights to “liberty, equality, and fraternity” there was tension between the rights from interference (like, liberty) and rights to social supports (like, fraternity and equality). Rights from are often called “negative” rights; rights to are often called “positive” rights. The MMIWG argues that Indigenous non-males must have access to goods and services that are essential to securing their “negative” rights — freedom from violence and race-based exclusion from jobs, for instance. The arguments over what percentage of the missing and murdered were injured by Indigenous men are thus beside the point: the crucial point is that Indigenous women and girls are subject to violence, and that it is Canada’s responsibility to ensure their safety at least to the level provided for everybody else.

Sisters in Strength heart puzzle collage (Source: MMIWG artists gallery)

The Commission emphasizes that the “exclusion of women, girls, 2SLGBTQQIA people, Elders, and children from the exercise of Indigenous self-determination must end.” This is a tricky point: the call is for Indigenous self-determination, but within the context of de-colonizing programs that can undo the imposition of patriarchal forms of government and the destruction of pre-colonial forms that were more equitable and even matriarchal. (I will look more fully at the different kinds of rights evoked in the MMIWG report in a later article).


The report, “Reclaiming Power and Place” has already had international impact. Prime Minister Trudeau drew calls for an independent investigation from two international bodies simply by speaking the word “genocide” in his role as head of Canada’s government. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, asked for Canada to investigate further, even though she admitted she had not, herself, read the MMIWG report. APTN reported that when Bachelet met with the prime minister, the MMIWG inquiry was a “side note” to their discussions of international human rights.

The MMIWG has drawn the international spotlight to Canada-Indigenous relationships with unprecedented focus. In the storm of commentary it set off, the report has pitted lefty, social progressives who embrace the charge of “Canadian genocide” against right-wing, conservative nationalists who see it as an affront to both Canadian peace-keepers and to the sufferers of “real” genocides elsewhere. This is in keeping with the MMIWG determination to effect immediate change in Canadian-Indigenous relations. It is also an obstacle to facing the most intimate character of our challenge: can systemic reform mean anything if we do not come to know our neighbors, as people, in the face-to-face, and the one-on-one? And how can we ask people who have been so injured to meet us in this encounter?

I will come back to this in the next weeks. For now, let me mark this pause with some poetry from one of my King’s colleagues: Sylvia Hamilton is a poet, journalist, professor and filmmaker; this is from her reflection on slavery and its legacy in Nova Scotia, “Memory Work, in Three Parts,” from Each Book a Drum: Celebrating Ten Years of Halifax Humanities:

Let us not compare atrocities,
Let us not be consumed by guilt,
Let us press our faces to the wounds of history,
Let us open our hearts to the songs of justice.

–Sylvia Hamilton


Susan Dodd

Susan Dodd is an associate professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College in Halifax. She is the author of The Ocean Ranger: remaking the promise of oil (Fernwood, 2012), co-editor (with Neil Robertson) of Unity of Opposites? Hegel and Canadian Political Thought (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming) and author of The Halifax Explosion: the Apocalypse of Samuel Prince (a commentary on Catastrophe and Social Change), Underhill Books. She can also be heard in a recent episode of Canadaland’s Commons, “CRUDE #6 — The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea”