“A man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows — since he knows it, there is no need to search—nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.” — Socrates, Meno

Echoing Socrates’ paraphrase of Meno, Andrew Coyne wonders out loud what the point of a public inquiry would be into 1,182 — at last count — missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. What could we learn that we don’t already know?

I won’t join in the chorus of antipathy which, not surprisingly, has erupted in reaction to his column. But I will suggest that he demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of what, precisely, is being demanded in this case.

His starting point is a recently released document prepared by the RCMP, which contains much useful information, but does not attempt to go much beyond that. We shouldn’t be surprised, for example, that neither the report nor Coyne deploys the term or the concept of settler colonialism, the root cause of First Nations anomie on reserves and in our cities. Nor does it confront the concomitant problem of systemic bias in our police forces, identified as a serious problem in the Picton inquiry. Police violence against FN women and girls isn’t addressed either, again unsurprisingly.

But the report does provide a field of statistics that could prove very useful in that public inquiry that Coyne doesn’t want. And some of the findings appear counter-intuitive, at least to the bien-pensants who have First Nations all figured out — the fact that domestic assault leading to death is significantly less common among Aboriginal populations, for example. There are many forces involved, and a public inquiry with open terms of reference could shed more light on how they interact, combine and clash.

But the main point in all this is what a public inquiry would signify.

We need to go beyond the gut-level, liberal response: that, given the disproportionate numbers of the dead and missing, if the First Nations want an inquiry, they should get one. Certainly it could be a form of catharsis, somewhat more substantial in that respect than Harper’s hollow apology to the victims of residential schools, and that in itself wouldn’t be a bad thing. The hard heads, for their part, will talk about costs, time and resources, but in the light of what has been taken from First Nations after contact — like, most of the country — it’s a drop in the proverbial bucket.

There will be those, then, who support the inquiry, not because they see merit in it, but out of white liberal guilt. There’s much more to all this, however, than a sop to the First Nations to calm uneasy settler consciences. “What is it about this crime in particular that singles it out…for the kind of urgent, crisis-level attention signalled by a public inquiry?” asks Coyne. That’s a fair question, even if he would not stay for an answer. There are two main reasons for the singling-out.

The first is that it a public inquiry would be another important step in a process of nation-to-nation reconciliation — itself urgent and crisis-level — that was initiated by the formal, official recognition of the gross abuses of the residential schools. Facing up to the staggering ethnocidal, even genocidal crimes of the Canadian state against First Nations and Inuit is essential if that process of healing is ever to occur.

The second is that the whole issue is cross-cut by gender, and, in recognizing this, we hold up a mirror to our wider Canadian society. Coyne pooh-poohs this aspect with a “what about the menz” response. In fact he performs spectacular acrobatics in dismissing the figures:

[W]hen compared with non-aboriginal women…aboriginal women now make up more than 20 per cent of all female murder victims, twice the proportion of 30 years ago, and five times their share of the female population. But that’s not because more aboriginal women are being murdered. It’s because fewer non-aboriginal women are.

That one self-destructs in five seconds. But Coyne also note that the homicide rate among FN men is much higher than it is for FN women and girls. “It is not clear why the murders of aboriginal women should merit our special attention and concern, and not the murders of aboriginal men, even if the latter, like men generally, are also disproportionately the perpetrators,” he says.

Obviously we should be concerned about both. But I, for one, am more than a little tired of those who wave away crimes against individual groups on the grounds that other groups are hurting too. There are unique dimensions to violence against women, just as there are against minorities: lynching, for example, has a specific context, and so does sexual assault, in general. It’s not helpful in the least to dissolve these systemic forms of violence into larger, more intractable categories, and to ignore the intersections of gender and “race” that are so clearly at work in the matter at hand.

Coyne concludes: “The broad project of repairing that social destruction should absolutely be among the first of our concerns as a country, with aboriginal people themselves very much taking the lead. It is not evident what contribution another public inquiry would make to that end.”

And yet it is precisely those “aboriginal people” who are taking the lead in demanding an inquiry. They realize, as Coyne fails to, that the very fact of having one constitutes a form of recognition; and that this part of a much wider problem needs to be addressed on its own merits. The inquiry may or may not yield a trove of additional facts, but it would focus our attention, once again placing reconciliation, in all of its undoubted complexity, on the national agenda. Is that not worth doing?