This week the prime minister of Canada admitted that Indigenous women and girls, queer and trans people, and two-spirited people have experienced and are experiencing genocide.
As a Gitxaala and Tsimshian woman who was raised on B.C.'s Highway 16, the notorious Highway of Tears, I am astonished and struggling to process this.
Lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the word “genocide,” then campaigned for the establishment of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, which defined the most grievous crime that could be committed against humans and our collective humanity. The Canadian government has avoided the term all these decades for legal reasons.
Now, for the first time, the highest political leader of this damn country has stated an ugly truth, one that crosses this land and continent. It rolled off Justin Trudeau's tongue in his second speech after the release of the final report of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Women and Girls.
And you know what? After all these years, after the news came out, I performed as usual. I went to work, came home, and then was alone — and it was absolutely the most alone I have ever felt in this world.
Nothing was mentioned at work; there were no check-in phone calls except those related to all-too-regular daily capitalist tasks. No family members contacted me. Only one friend reached out. The silence was deafening.
I think about all the times I debated with bosses, colleagues, dates, fellow creatives, classmates, and strangers about the genocide of Indigenous peoples, trying to get people to admit this fact. I described Canada's complacency about the thousands of missing Indigenous women and girls to a contingent of international journalists during my time in a journalism program in Washington, D.C. They were horrified that Canada, a developed, reputable “nice and progressive” country, would let this happen. I reported on stories about the Highway of Tears in my home territory and the Pickton trial. When I went back to school, I studied genocide with Gerald Vizenor.
Now, finally, years of inquiry work by people who have dedicated years of their life, hearts, and souls to sharing and lifting up testimonies from across the country have been released for the world to read.
The report shows once again, even more firmly, that the murder of my people is cumulative and has been tolerated in this society. And yet still the silence rings, like tinnitus in an anechoic chamber. It feels like a vacuum, a void, a dark room filled with emptiness. There is much collective silence in the real world, and it rings in my ears, in my brain, even in my chest. At times I am numb. Is this real? Are they still denying it — those same people I used to argue with? Are people on the street talking about it? I’ve heard nothing while outside; the city continues as it has always been.
I am spinning. How can I contend with every instance where I, my mother, my aunts, my friends, my cousins, their relatives nearly disappeared — when we all collectively have stories about escaping abduction, assault, rape, or attempted murder? These are women outside of the 1,400 who testified in the inquiry, who all have experienced similar moments in their lives.
And then the crux of this entire endeavour, the deceased and missing to date — an estimated 4,000 Indigenous women and girls and trans, queer, and two-spirited people. These souls, these humans, these mothers, aunts, daughters, nieces, and grandmothers are finally spiritually allowed to exist again in our collective consciousness. Their presence has been recognized through an admission of their purposeful disappearance. Words and prayers have to be offered, but this must not only be done by Indigenous people. This must be collectively done as a society. I can’t help wondering: Will non-Indigenous people rise to this occasion? Will there actually be a real rally cry or call to change led by settlers and immigrants? Will settlers, immigrants, and newcomers come together to acknowledge and shift where our relations stand today?
And I can't help but think about what happened in post-apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. What happened after their Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Did people just continue on with their days? Did they shuffle along the streets, drinking coffee, engaging in capitalism and oppressive systems like nothing had changed, maybe looking down at their feet as they crossed paths with the people they had allowed to be hurt every day? Is this what regular Canadians are going to do tomorrow and the next day — just shuffle along and keep their head down?
Is it onward and upward from this point on, or will we just sink back into the status quo?
The world should have stopped for us yesterday. It should stop this week, this month. This is one of those unique moments where every step forward has to be meaningful, felt, and compassionate. A moment of potential transformation.
Canadians cannot continue on as they have, tight-lipped, complicit, passive. A lot of people, in their own ways, have accepted and perpetuated a culture of passivity that permits violence against Indigenous women and girls, queer and trans people, and two-spirited people.
For my future relatives, I hope this culture can shift as rapidly as we need it to do.