Large crowd of protesters on the streets of Toronto. A red dress and Mohawk Warrior flag can be seen hoisted above the crowd. May 30, 2020, by Louis Karoniaktajeh Hall.

As the country has been absorbing the proof of our genocidal behaviour toward Indigenous children after the discovery of an unmarked mass grave at a former residential school in Kamloops, the federal government belatedly released its response to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), which completed its work two years ago.

The federal response is in the form of a “pathway,” not a fixed plan. It could change with time. To start with, the federal Liberals have pledged $2.2 billion over five years to the task.

Many of the actions the federal government announced relate specifically to gender and to the way the justice system operates. Those include increasing the number of shelters for Indigenous women and expanding First-Nations-controlled policing.

But the federal response also recognizes the broader, systemic context.

Abuses of any segments of the Indigenous population cannot be separated from a centuries-long legacy of exploitation. Ever since the first European settlers came to this continent, we have single-mindedly sought to exploit its natural resources while pushing the Indigenous peoples aside.

The federal government’s MMIWG inquiry action plan puts it this way:

“Restoring, respecting, upholding and promoting self-determination of Indigenous Peoples, which will support the process of decolonization and the development and implementation of Indigenous-led solutions and services.”

Among the issues the federal government promises to address are: poverty, adequate and safe housing, political repression, and denial of cultural practices.

The actual commitments are a grab bag of previously announced initiatives, tweaks to existing programs, and some new specific programs — such as a national hotline for Indigenous women and girls.

And then there are a few mere promises, for which there are neither action plans nor dollars committed.

In the last category is a pledge to address poverty, Indigenous and otherwise, via a guaranteed annual livable income. The $2.2 billion Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Thursday, June 3 does not come close to paying for that promise.

A commitment to any kind of Indigenous sovereignty, however, is conspicuously missing.

A land base, control and ownership of natural resources such as oil and gas, and institutions of self-government have been fundamental demands of Indigenous peoples seeking sovereignty for many decades.

In frontier areas of the north, the demand means recognizing Indigenous sovereignty over broad swaths of territory (currently recognized as Crown land) and resources that extend far beyond the tiny patches of land assigned to reserves.

In the populated south, Indigenous people express this demand through the Land Back movement, which seeks to acquire land from private owners and return it to Indigenous communities.

Instead, the current government only offers vague talk about enhancing the economic benefits Indigenous communities derive from resource extraction activity.

In a telling passage in its response to the MMIWG Inquiry, the Trudeau government acknowledges the need to “support safe communities during resource extraction.” It references “many resource extraction projects” and specifically names the Trans Mountain Project Expansion.  

In a rare display of candour, the government admits that it must do more “to ensure the safety and security of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people at all stages of major resource projects.”

It is a short and fairly vague statement in long document, but it tells a big story.

The government acknowledges here that Indigenous communities get little economic benefit from major projects — given a system where all resource royalties go to provincial governments, or, in rare cases, the federal government.

Further, the government also recognizes these mega-projects can have a socially devastating impact on vulnerable Indigenous peoples.

Here’s the rub, though: the government announces zero tangible actions in this part of its response to the Missing and Murdered Women and Girls Inquiry.

All we have is a pledge to look at a “variety of activities aimed at mitigating impacts of temporary work camps and worker influxes.”

Don’t forget that word: “mitigating.” Our society has no intention of recognizing any measure of Indigenous peoples’ rightful ownership and control of their lands and resources.

Rather, we intend to continue the centuries-old practice of treating Indigenous communities as inconveniences for businesses that seek to make profits from the riches on their territories. 

The only departure with tradition is that we plan to do something — don’t know what yet — to “mitigate” (translation: make less terrible) the harms our society’s and, especially, our corporations’ intrusions might visit on First Nations.

Is that a cause for rejoicing?

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

Image credit: Louis Karoniaktajeh Hall​/Flickr.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...