Marion Buller has done no one any favours with her inquiry’s sweeping denunciation of Canada as a society of mass killers.
She’s done nothing to enhance support among Canadians, who will mostly dismiss her report’s most contentious finding out of hand. She has offered no aid to a federal government that would desperately like to do something right on Aboriginal claims but has just been told it’s running an extermination project. And she certainly hasn’t helped Canada’s First Nations, which are likely to see their place on the national priority list fall deeper into the status of hopeless causes as people conclude there’s simply no means by which their demands and aspirations can be satisfied.
That’s a sad thing. Because despite the conclusion of the inquiry that Canada’s goal in its treatment of its native people is one of annihilation, there exists a great well of sympathy for the conditions they have been reduced to, an acceptance that past practices have been wrong-headed and damaging, and a willingness to go to considerable lengths to make it right. But people can only do the possible, and demanding the impossible is no road to success.
People can only do the possible, and demanding the impossible is no road to success
Even Justin Trudeau appears to grasp that fact. This prime minister, more than any previous occupant of his office, has made reconciliation and progress a top priority of his government. Trudeau has shown himself endlessly willing to apologize for things other people have done, yet even he could not initially bring himself to utter the word “genocide” after the report of Buller’s inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women included it in their findings. He looked more than usually pained in trying to once again pledge his government to the Aboriginal cause, while obviously knowing hope had been pushed farther away.
The prime minister wanted to spend Tuesday on one of those missions that feeds his preferred branding of Liberal Canada as a place where nice people do good things. He was booked into Vancouver to announce millions of dollars in foreign aid for child health and reproductive rights, letting him portray his government as a friend to women while simultaneously trying again to make abortion an issue so he can use it against Conservatives. He made the announcement, but it was lost in the contrails of the Buller report. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, whose plan for the day was to dare China to admit slaughtering thousands in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, found herself responding to a request from the Organization of American States to “clarify the accusations … of genocide in your country.” Guess what Beijing’s response will be next time Ottawa complains about its arbitrary jailing of two Canadians over the Huawei dispute: Don’t talk to us about human rights when you’ve just been accused of genocide.
Trudeau tried gamely to move the issue forward: “There are many debates ongoing around words and use of words. Our focus as a country, as leaders, as citizens, must be on the steps we take to put an end to this situation.”
Sure, but how? Trudeau has now committed to hundreds of Aboriginal reforms. Before becoming prime minister he pledged his party to adopt all 94 “calls to action” in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s inquiry into the residential schools system. Many of the recommendations were multi-part propositions that elevated the collection of demands into the hundreds. Now Trudeau says he also accepts the MMIW’s 231 “calls for justice,” which chief commissioner Buller says are not recommendations but “legal imperatives.”
These range from reasonable pleas for fundamental reforms in the fraught relations between native communities and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, to demands for open spigots of money for an array of cultural, educational, transportation and other initiatives. One “call for justice” alone would have the same official status accorded to French and English extended to Indigenous languages, of which there are 60 in 12 language families according to Statistics Canada, and 90 according to UNESCO.
Other “imperatives” would require a guaranteed annual income, guaranteed “safe and affordable” transit access to communities in the remotest parts of the country, a host of services tailored to “2SLGBTQQIA” people (two-spirited, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual) and a call to “decolonize by learning the true history of Canada and Indigenous history in your local area.”
The notion of Canada as a “colonial” country is one that is now fixed in the firmament of Indigenous dogma. It’s certainly a term with historic applications, but for most Canadians seems fixated on a country that no longer exists. More than a fifth of Canada’s population was born somewhere else, and immigration figures hit new records every year: the goal for 2018 was 310,000 new Canadians. Another 5.7 million Canadians have one parent born outside the country. The economic, science and economic development minister just announced a new Centre for Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Statistics to keep track of it all.
The two per cent to four per cent of Canadians who identify as First Nations unquestionably feel left behind in a country in which they were first to arrive, and where they have been treated abominably. They have every right to demand restitution and the righting of past wrongs, or something as simple as drinkable water or workable fire trucks. That won’t happen, however, as long as the focus remains on groaning collections of unmeetable demands and the hurling of incendiary accusations in place of practical solutions any reasonable person could get behind.
Marion Buller may believe Canadians are engaged in “deliberate, race, identity and gender-based genocide,” but in making it the headline-grabbing core of her report she’s wasted a rare opportunity to achieve some concrete good for Indigenous Canadians.
• Twitter: KellyMcParland