When is colonialism a genocide? The case of Indigenous women and girls in Canada

Activists seeking justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) march down Toronto streets, 22 March 2018.

Lori Lee Oates

Canada’s treatment of Indigenous persons by white settlers and contemporary government institutions are issues that have increasingly come to the forefront of late. They are at the heart of questions around how we should govern in the modern world. These institutions were not built by Indigenous persons, and Canadians are increasingly recognizing that our government has often contributed to the poor health, safety, and economic outcomes experienced by Indigenous persons.

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) inquiry in Canada recently sparked a debate over whether Indigenous persons in the country have suffered, and continue to suffer, from genocide. The inquiry came about in response to years of lobbying by Indigenous women, and was the fulfillment of a campaign promise on the part of the Trudeau government. The final report was released on 3 June, entitled Reclaiming Power and Place.

The report relies on the definition of genocide as developed by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in the lead up to the second world war. Lemkin maintained that:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of a national group, with the aim of annihilating the group themselves.[1]

The report also draws upon the work of scholars Andrew Woolford and Jeff Benevenuto, who effectively argued that the spatial and temporal boundaries of genocide in Canada are not obvious. “If Canadian colonialism was genocidal, where exactly did it occur and when did it begin? And considering the inner generational effects at stake, as well as the perpetuation of settler colonial practices, can we say for sure whether genocide has even ended?”[2]

The full report, including almost 1500 pages of written material, represents three years of work by experts in Canadian and international law. It listed approximately 200 recommendations, referred to as Calls to Justice. More than 2,380 people participated in the inquiry. Four hundred and sixty-eight family members shared their experiences and recommendations at 15 community hearings. Approximately 270 family members and survivors shared their stories in 147 in-camera sessions. Another 84 expert witnesses and elders provided testimony in expert and knowledge-keeper hearings.

Professor of international law at Osgoode Hall Law School, Heidi Matthews, has perhaps characterized the controversy best when she stated that the genocide debate will force us to reimagine the foundations of Canada’s political authority.[3] This is why the inquiry’s findings are so controversial. It forces Canadians to grapple with the dark truth that our country, like so many others, was built on colonial and imperial violence.

The underpinnings of the finding of genocide in the inquiry report are arguably a new application of the definition of genocide. The report focuses on the treatment of Canadian Indigenous persons as a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of a national group, with the aim of annihilating the group themselves. It expands the definition because the commissioners were trying to demonstrate how dire the situation continues to be for Canadian Indigenous women. This is what was necessary if Canada is seriously interested in addressing the continued impacts of our colonial history.

Unfortunately, the reaction to the final report by media and opinion leaders has demonstrated that many are still unaware of how colonial history continues to impact modern Canadian institutions. Predictably, the responses paralleled the very colonialism and patriarchy that the inquiry sought to expose.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was an exception to this and accepted the report’s use of the word genocide on the basis that Indigenous women and girls are twelve times more likely to go missing or be murdered than any other demographic group in Canada. Indigenous women and girls made up 25% of the victims of homicide in Canada between 2001 and 2015.[4] However, Leader of the Official Opposition, Andrew Scheer, immediately rejected the use of the word genocide.[5]

Media commentators cast aside the finding of genocide with responses that lacked intellectual or legal rigour. For example, an anonymous piece in The Globe and Mail, citing no law, stated that, “Ms. Buller and her commission are accusing Canada of being in the act of committing one of the most reviled crimes in history. That has inevitably turned the release of their report into a legal and linguistic debate that will do nothing to improve the lives of Indigenous women and girls.”[6] Many focused on the commission’s strategy of concluding genocide, rather than see it as an opportunity for Canada to deal with its colonial past.

Romeo Dallaire, force commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) and a senior fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, stated that he wasn’t comfortable with applying the genocide label to Canada, relying instead upon the older definition in the Genocide Convention of 1948.

While Dallaire might be uncomfortable, his position ignores a growing body of work arguing that the definition of genocide can and should be more expansive than has been applied to date. His position also ignores the reality that the definition achieved in the convention was far less than Lemkin had argued for. The definition itself was the subject of negotiation and far less than was wished for by some states.[7] In 1994, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) also defined sexual violence as an act of genocide. It found that mass rape during wartime was an act of genocidal rape.[8]

Clearly more self-reflection is needed in response to the inquiry report. Focusing on the finding of genocide is an easy way to avoid dealing with the report’s recommendations. These include things like mandatory and ongoing training for lawyers and court staff, as well as the creation of Indigenous court room liaison workers.

Many Indigenous persons and families participated in the inquiry at great costs to themselves. Many Indigenous women and groups lobbied for years to make the inquiry happen. The final report validated their suffering and the issues they brought forward. It is unfortunate that prominent Canadians and Canadian institutions moved so quickly to invalidate it. Canada needs to do better as a nation as we continue to deal with the modern-day impacts of our colonial past.

Dr. Lori Lee Oates is affiliated with the M.Phil. (Humanities) program at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She holds a Ph.D. in global and imperial history from the University of Exeter. Lori has previously served as a Senior Policy Advisory at Status of Women Canada and researched women and the law in Canada. 


[1] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls, Reclaiming Power and Place: Executive Summary of the Final Report, p. 2.

[2] Woolford and Benevenuto, “Canada and Colonial Genocide”, Journal of Genocide Research 17, no.4 (2015): 375. Et al., see also Robert Davis, The Genocide in Machine in Canada: The Pacification of the North (1973) and Dean Neu and Richard Therrien, Accounting for Genocide: Canada’s Bureaucratic Assault on Aboriginal People (2003).

[3] “What the debate around Indigenous genocide says about Canada”, Maclean’s, June 7, 2019.

[4] “Trudeau says deaths of Indigenous woman and girls amount to a ‘genocide’”, CBC News, 4 June 2019.

[5] Janice Dickson, “Scheer rejects MMIWG inquiry finding of genocide against Indigenous people”, Globe and Mail, June 10, 2019

[6] “Is Canada Committing Genocide: That Doesn’t Add Up”, The Globe and Mail, 6 June 2019.

[7] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress, (Clark, New Jersey: The Law Book Exchange, 2008).

[8] United Nations Security Council Resolution 955, 8 November 1994.

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