Canada has a long history of ignoring reports like that of the MMIWG inquiry

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Closing ceremony of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Photo: Justin Trudeau/Twitter

The hullabaloo over the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) inquiry's use of the word genocide has obscured its broader message, and that is more than a pity. It is a tragedy.

The inquiry's report builds a powerful case about the systemic causes for the frighteningly large number of cases of Indigenous women and girls who have been victims of violence, abuse and, too often, murder.

The report focuses, as one might expect, on the justice system, especially on the police. It points out that many Indigenous families have not believed they could trust the police to effectively deal with the disappearances of their loved ones.

Those families had ample reason for their mistrust.

For the most part, policing on traditional Indigenous territory and in urban Indigenous communities has not been a matter of providing a service. The RCMP and local police forces have, in large measure, acted not as peacekeepers, but as occupiers. Rather than serve the people and their communities, their role has been to pacify them.

But the report's scope goes far beyond policing.

The inquiry identifies structural ways in which the dysfunctional governance of Indigenous people and communities has produced the tragic results it was mandated to investigate.

In its calls to action the report recognizes "self-determination and self-governance as fundamental Indigenous and human rights and a best practice."

It points out that "self-governance in all areas of Indigenous society are required to properly serve and protect Indigenous women and girls," adding that this is particularly "true in the delivery of services."

Quite specifically, the report tackles the way the federal government manages and funds basic services in Indigenous communities, including education. All too often, this is done through term-limited contribution agreements, essentially imposed by the government in Ottawa.

The report notes that these "short-term or project-based funding models in service areas are not sustainable." It explains that they "represent a violation of inherent rights to self-governance and a failure to provide funding on a needs-based approach, equitably, substantively, and stably."

Many previous studies made similar recommendations

None of what the MMIWG Inquiry has reported should come as news to anyone who has been paying attention to Indigenous issues for the past four decades.

The auditor general's office drew the same conclusions as did the MMIWG Inquiry in a long series of damning reports, going back to the beginning of this century.

In 2011, we reported, in this space, on the auditor general's frustration with the government's failure to provide properly funded services to First Nations.

At the time Michael Wernick -- who later became the chief federal civil servant, the Clerk of the Privy Council -- was the senior Indigenous affairs official, the deputy minister. The ministry, which has now been divided in two, was then known as Indian affairs.

Speaking to a House of Commons committee, Wernick accepted the auditor general's critique, and explained that what the government had to do was provide a long term and "statutory basis" (meaning based on legislation) for funding Indigenous services. This would not be easy to accomplish, he said, because it would require an "all-of-government" approach, something very daunting to achieve.

That was in the time of the Harper Conservative government, which had scant interest in the rights and social conditions of Indigenous people. When the Liberal Justin Trudeau took over in 2015, the tone on Indigenous affairs changed completely. But tangible progress, especially on basic governance issues, has remained slow and difficult.

Prior to the auditor general's series of reports on the misadministration of Indigenous services there was the massive Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), headed by former Northwest Territories Dene and Assembly of First Nations leader George Erasmus and Quebec judge René Dussault. It reported in 1996 and you can still find the report online.

For the most part, governments of all stripes have ignored the royal commission's detailed recommendations on self-government for First Nations, especially as they relate to control of and benefit from natural resources on First Nations territory.

The current government has at least taken the RCAP report off the shelf and has been making an effort to implement its prescriptions on First Nation management of local community activities. But there is significant resistance to this from within the bureaucracy, as Jody Wilson-Raybould learned, to her considerable chagrin, when she tried to implement a cooperative, non-confrontational approach to First Nations' litigation.

The government also has to respond to pressure from the large and well financed community of industry lobbyists in Ottawa, many of whom consider Indigenous demands to be obstreperous and annoying hindrances to industrial development. Their views all too often prevail over those of the RCAP.

Serious but futile efforts in Pierre Trudeau's time, more than three decades ago

Even before the Erasmus-Dussault royal commission, there were other largely futile efforts to establish Indigenous governance on a more stable, sustainable and fair basis.

Notable among those was the Penner Report, submitted to the Canadian government in 1983.  Liberal MP Keith Penner was chair of the Indian affairs committee during PM Pierre Trudeau's last term in government. His committee studied the issue of self-government for Indigenous peoples, following the adoption of the Constitution Act of 1982, which included the begrudging, passive-aggressive recognition of "existing" aboriginal and treaty rights.

Penner's committee reported that "Indian people must work through a complex governmental structure in order to meet even basic needs," and outlined how this had a detrimental impact on child welfare, housing, basic services such as running water, education, employment and economic development, life expectancy, the incarceration rate, and just about everything else to do with the lives of Indigenous people.

Penner pointed an accusatory finger at the archaic neo-colonial Indian Act, which dates back to 1876 a time when the white, settler government quite openly and unabashed advocated the elimination of so-called "Indian" identity.

The committee stated bluntly that there was no way the Indian Act could be amended. It had to be scrapped completely and replaced with what would be, in essence, a nation-to-nation relationship between Canadian governments, both federal and provincial, and First Nations.

In its words, the Committee's central recommendation was that "the surest way to lasting change is through constitutional amendments." In that light, the Committee encouraged "both the federal government and Indian First Nations to pursue all processes leading to the implementation of self-government, including the bilateral process."

Unfortunately, the Pierre Trudeau government chose not to proceed on its own, but, rather subjected Indigenous people to a series of useless federal-provincial constitutional conferences, in which Indigenous leaders -- among them Jody Wilson-Raybould's father Bill Wilson -- were non-voting participants.

A handful of provinces, notably Ontario and New Brunswick, were willing to seriously consider some genuine form of Indigenous self-rule, but most considered it a threat to their power and, more important, their significant revenues from resource royalties.

Quebec was a special case. Its premier, Parti Québécois founder René Lévesque, sympathised, in theory, with the notion of self-government, but refused to vote. He was partially boycotting constitutional talks, because the federal government and the other provinces had adopted the 1982 constitutional changes over Quebec's objections.

In recent years we have had both the Truth and Reconciliation Report and the current report of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The current government has expressed a lot of goodwill on the issues these reports raise.

What happens next, however, will depend on the goodwill of the Canadian people as a whole. And then there is the little matter of a federal election coming this fall, which will have a major impact on the future of Indigenous policy.

If history is a guide, the most recent recommendations will likely end up ignored.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Photo: Justin Trudeau/Twitter

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