After a week’s consideration, it seems Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not completely convinced after all that Canada’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples amounts to genocide.
The latter was the main and most controversial finding of the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
The prime minister had initially avoided embracing the concept, only later to say he accepted the genocide conclusion.
On Monday, Trudeau qualified that statement.
“I accept the commissioner’s report, including the fact that they used the word ‘genocide,’ but for me, it is a bit more appropriate to talk of a cultural genocide,” he told Radio-Canada.
Trudeau said the 2015 truth and reconciliation report that concluded that the Indian residential school system was part of a system geared to cultural genocide was “where he is at.”
There has been a fair amount of pushback against the national inquiry’s finding that Canada is, to this day, complicit in a genocide, and not always from people otherwise hostile or indifferent to the Indigenous cause.
Retired lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire — who witnessed the horrors of the Rwanda genocide first hand in the late ’90s — was one of the first to object publicly to what he sees as a banalization of the concept.
Trudeau says Dallaire raised the issue with him in the margins of last week’s D-Day ceremonies in Europe.
The prime minister’s latest genocide comments were part of a rare extensive French-language interview — the first in that language as far as I can ascertain since the national inquiry released its final report.
Trudeau may have been trying to move the debate beyond the issue of the validity of the term genocide, or he may have been taking a step back in response to widespread criticism of his position in his home province, or it may just have taken him a week to make up his mind on the matter.
It should be noted that the national inquiry’s core finding could not have caught the prime minister by surprise last week.
He had a heads-up of the conclusion that was coming his government’s way. The report, for the main part, was leaked to various media organizations 72 hours before it was formally presented to Trudeau.
Someone, somewhere in the government would have flagged the genocide issue before the prime minister took the stage at the ceremony that attended the publication of the final report.
The federal government hardly lacks the expertise to assess the potential legal consequences of Trudeau endorsing such a diagnosis.
At this juncture, it is fair to wonder whether at some point, Trudeau will feel the need to requalify his qualified acceptance of the word “genocide.”
One way or another though, Trudeau’s mixed messages will likely satisfy no one.
Those who see support of the finding as the litmus test of the prime minister’s commitment to Indigenous reconciliation will doubt his sincerity.
Those who question it will feel he lacked judgment when he accepted the conclusion without qualifications.
Nor should those mixed messages reassure the many Liberal insiders who have been wondering whether the prime minister is on the recovery track from the SNC-Lavalin affair and if any lessons were learned along the way.
As much or more so than the actual substance of the controversy involving the handling of the legal file of the engineering firm, the prime minister’s hesitant management of the crisis, his ever-changing scripts raised questions about his competence.
From one day to the next, no one could really be sure where the prime minister was at.
It seems that even after the SNC-Lavalin debacle, the notion that it is hard to follow a leader who makes himself hard to follow still escapes Trudeau.
Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.