UN Human Rights Office calls for examination of MMIWG inquiry's genocide claim

The United Nations Human Rights Office is urging the federal government to probe the national inquiry's conclusion that violence against Indigenous women and girls amounts to genocide, CBC News has learned.

"The national inquiry found reasons to believe that Canada's past and present policies, omissions and actions amount to genocide, under international law," UN spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani wrote in an email statement on Sunday.

"Given these findings by the inquiry, we call on the government to take steps for competent national authorities to assess these serious claims."

The UN's call comes just as its High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, arrives in Ottawa for a series of meetings this week with the prime minister and senior government officials.

The focus of Bachelet's visit is supposed to be about promoting human rights and gender equality around the world, but Canada's own record on those issues is expected to be scrutinized.

"The very first thing I'm sure the commissioner's going to want to see is what is the plan on the part of Prime Minister Trudeau and his government to address the conditions of genocide that he's admitted," said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a law professor at the University of British Columbia. 

"The fact that the prime minister said 'genocide' triggers an international process."

UN wants Canada to implement inquiry's recommendations

The federal government has accepted the findings of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, including that of genocide, but has referred to the term in the past tense. 

"Our government is committed to ending the ongoing national tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ and two-spirit people," wrote a spokesperson for the Office of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs in an email statement. 

"The National Inquiry has presented their final report and recommendations including a conclusion that the tragic violence that Indigenous women and girls have experienced amounts to genocide. We have accepted their report and respect their conclusions. We will take the time to review the report."

Martial Trezzini/EPA-EFE

If the federal government were to admit genocide against Indigenous Peoples is ongoing, it would open the doors to international prosecution since Canada is part of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, according to Turpel-Lafond.

"Part of me is concerned that they're using words in a loose way that have massive implications," Turpel-Laford said. "They should be much more disciplined and focused about it."

The UN is encouraging Canada to effectively implement the inquiry's recommendations, including the development of a national action plan to ensure equitable access to jobs, housing, education, safety and health care.

The UN Human Rights Office is ready to offer technical assistance to Canada, according to Shamdasani.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Meanwhile, activists in Canada are ready to hold the government to account.  

"I think that it is deplorable that grassroots activists had to advocate for decades for this inquiry," said Jacqueline Hansen, gender rights campaigner with Amnesty International Canada.

"This is a problem that has long been known ... This is a stain on Canada's human rights record, and so we want to see what this inquiry leads to is change."

The UN is not the first international body to urge Canada to dig deeper into the claim of genocide against Indigenous peoples. 

The Organization of American States is also awaiting a response from the federal government to launch an investigation. 

Setback to UN Security Council seat bid?

"This will have a very detrimental impact, I would suggest, on Canada's hopes for joining the security council at the United Nations," said Peter MacKay, former Conservative justice, defence and foreign affairs minister who attempted to secure a UN Security Council seat for Canada.

"Being a country that has recently acknowledged a genocide separates us in a negative way from some of the other countries we're competing with."


MacKay, who is now a partner at Baker & McKenzie LLP in Toronto, called the situation a "setback" for Canada's reputation, as a country devoted to human rights. 

"There's an element of hypocrisy when we start to lecture and hector in a sanctimonious way, cast aspersions on the histories of other countries," MacKay said.

"I think we are now in a different place, and under a different lens when it comes how countries view our country."

Payam Akhavan, an international law professor at McGill University and former UN prosecutor at the Hague, agrees it may become more challenging for Canada to preach human rights to other countries given the inquiry's findings. 

"What I fear now is that countries like Myanmar, which are in fact committing genocide in the strict legal sense, will use this genocide finding to discredit and undermine Canada's standing in a way which is neither reasonable or fair," Akhavan said.

"We have in Canada a democratic space. We have a government that has committed itself to addressing the historical injustice against Indigenous peoples so I would hope in the case of Canada we wouldn't need to rely on international pressure to do what we need to do."

Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press

In his view, Akhavan said discussions over the use of the term genocide are a distraction from the steps that need to be taken to address the causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls. 

Akhavan said Canada should seize this opportunity to show other countries that it can admit its wrongs and lead the way for change. 

"We live in a world where unless there is some highly provocative label, like genocide, we generally are indifferent to human suffering," Akhavan said.

"It's unfortunate that that's what it takes for us to notice."

Story tip? Email olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca